Making bread is an art, science and passion project for Fiona Strouts, PhD, a Stanford research scientist in infectious diseases.
Her baking began as a hobby several years ago, but now Strouts operates a business, L’atelier du Pain, and sells her whole-grain bread at the Portola Valley Farmers' Market. I caught up with her by email:
How did you start baking bread?
I learned to make bread about eight years ago from my Italian housemate when I lived in London during graduate school. She taught me to make 100 percent whole-wheat sourdough bread that we would bake together on the weekends. The bread was fairly dense, and provided good fuel for cycling.
I now make whole-grain, naturally leavened breads using mostly California-grown wheat. The favorite seems to be the Sprouted Lentil & Rye bread. But my personal favorite for everyday eating is the Sonora Field Blend; it has great flavor and aroma. Sonora wheat was one of the first varieties planted in California in the early 1800s.
I've heard that you grind your own wheat. Why?
Yes, I stone-grind my own wheat because I want to capture the flavor and nutrients, which come mostly from the germ and bran portions of the wheat berry. I buy bags of wheat berries directly from farmers, and then mill them into flour right before I mix the dough. Milling the wheat myself also ensures that the flour is 100 percent whole grain. Wheat is very nutrient-dense compared with other grains, but only when it is in the truly whole-grain form — nothing added and nothing removed from the original wheat grain.
Why did you decide to turn your hobby into a business?
A number of things inspired me, and they all came together a few months ago. I grew up in France, and in the village where my parents live there was a local baker and friend. The highlight of the week was going to the market on Saturday and then stopping by his house to pick up bread. There would be others from the village there and we’d share a savory pastry and a glass of wine before picking up the bread and going home for lunch. I miss that sense of community and I wanted to re-create something similar.
Then, almost a year ago I started learning more about all of the farmers in California who are passionate about sustainable agriculture and who are growing different varieties of wheat —both ancient and modern. I loved discovering the different flavors and properties of these wheats for bread making.
In addition, I’ve always been very interested in health and population health. Making whole-grain, naturally leavened breads is a way to provide a healthy option for people.
How do you juggle baking, running a business and doing research?
Good question! It takes organization and prioritization. I used to bike race, and the training required a lot of discipline. But starting the business was less structured and it took longer than I thought it would, as I was doing it in my spare time. I spent several weekends practicing baking large batches of bread and sharing it with some of my labmates, which I think they appreciated. The market is one day per week and it’s a manageable scale for one person. I’ve reduced my full-time equivalent [work] hours accordingly to be able to do both and my advisor has been very supportive.
Explain your research at Stanford. Has it given you any insights into bread making?
I work in the lab of David Relman, MD, on a project focused on improving the diagnosis and prognosis of systemic infections in humans, using sequencing of both microbial nucleic acids and host transcripts derived from blood. I am trying to understand what those blood profiles look like during states of health. And whether we’re able to detect the presence of bacteria in the blood of healthy people, to help interpret what we see in sick individuals with suspected infections.
My background has helped me understand sourdough bread making from the aspect of microbial fermentation and the effects of time and temperature. I’ve actually become quite a keen home fermenter. I have various other projects going — including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, shoyu and miso — for which I converted the dishwasher into a fermentation chamber with a little space heater. Both baking and cooking are science, so it has also helped more generally in figuring out the properties of different types of wheat.
Previously: “I wasn’t afraid to fail at my dream”: A physician-chef discusses her unusual career
Photos by Fiona Strouts and sferrario1968