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Bread: A Staple And Art Form

Melissa Wenzel wants you to eat local, artisan foods – bread, specifically.

Whether you make it from scratch, pickup from a friend or purchase nearby, opt for the gluten-free or glutenous varietal, slice open a fluffy bagel, stack a sandwich or toss a slice on the grill, the Naturopathic doctor-turned-professional-bread-baker highly suggests giving it a try. If you needed the extra encouragement to eat more bread, there you have it.

"I am really into the local food movement. I love the idea of any small, local model and really homing in on the craft,” says Wenzel, better known as Mel. For her, gluten-free artisan bread-making has been the focal point of the past few years of her life in the form of handcrafted (and genuinely game-changing) Mama Mel’s Bread.

While she grew up with an interest in baking around generations of good home bakers, including a wedding-cake-making great-grandmother, it wasn’t until her daughters were born that it took center stage. Melissa was not only concerned about her kids’ health, but was also desperately missing the ciabattas and sourdoughs she had to give up with gluten in her mid-twenties.

"I’m a DIY kind of gal anyways, so I thought, ‘let’s see what we can do at home’” says Mel. With the almond and rice flour bricks of the early gluten-free days doing little for her, she gave artisan bread a go in a baguette pan that was a birthday gift, and started working on formulas, using her own cultures and tinkering with flour blends. She was quickly leaving loaves in a box on her front porch for a growing list of friends – and friends of friends – who offered to pay.

Wenzel knew she had a good product people loved, so she launched from a commercial kitchen in Northern California in 2017 — selling at pickup points that included farmers markets, local grocers and the more unlikely doctors offices — for people trying new diets for health reasons.

"It’s really hard getting people to be compliant. Good breads made it a lot easier to adhere,” she says. Over 3 million people eat gluten-free across America, whether due to serious intolerance or general avoidance. That’s the audience for whom Melissa designs her recipes, many of which are also free of eggs, dairy, soy and corn, so people with multiple food sensitivities can enjoy without worry.

While wild sourdough sandwich batard and kalamata olive levain may sound complicated, Melissa is all about keeping things simple — and has kept her team of 4 and sales going steady, even as Covid complicates every piece of the process, from sourcing reliability to ingredient pricing, personnel health protocol to new protective gear, ordering to pickups.

"It’s a little bit more of a hassle for the customers, but folks are super appreciative that we’re still going strong,” says Wenzel. Bottom line: people want Mama Mel's Bread.

"It’s one of my babies,” true to the name of her company. And while her kids aren’t still gluten-free, they devour the breads and sweets she bakes all the same, side by side with those from an array of local artisan bakers.

“It’s fun to support other businesses,” she says, naming shops she frequents in the area, restaurants featuring her breads on the menu, grocery stores that make it easy to find local products, and other top notch bakeries. She learns from many, mainly to stay small and true to the craft.

"We love what we do, we work hard and we’re really into the art of baking and bread-making from a traditional perspective,” Mel says. Those methodologies, combined with wholesome ingredients, artistry and love became her winning recipe, albeit one in a constant state of evolution.

Sourdoughs, ciabatta loaves and croissants are the finished goods Wenzel is most proud of. She says there are plenty of delicious cookies and muffins and scones, but it’s really hard to find the crusty breads and croissants gluten-free. Next on her work-in-progress wish list are solid brioche bread (heavy on the eggs and butter), well-braided challah that doesn’t tear, and sourdough English muffins off the griddle.

"I need to learn how to make these because I miss these things,” she laments. Like all of us, Wenzel is watching and waiting to see the future of food establishments, commercial kitchens, and packaged goods — continuing to develop her art and celebrate others baking, cooking, preparing, and playing with food on their own. People have undoubtedly grown closer to their food during quarantine. And in the eyes of Mama Mel, whether they love or hate the journey, all have gained greater respect for the craft (and carbs) through this wild ride.

"I think the thing that makes me so happy is making something that brings joy into people’s lives in a simple way,” Wenzel says. That’s artisan bread: both a staple and an art form.

Written for and originally published on Chef Tyler Florence's Full piece here.


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