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Breaking Bread : Finding a Good Bakery Is a Bit More of a Challenge in Ventura County Than It Is in France, But It’s Not an Impossible Quest

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Being French, I am always on the lookout for a good bakery, and around the holidays my search intensifies.

I have lived in California for 11 years now, and I love it. But I still miss French bakeries. Bread is so central to French life that in my hometown of about 100,000 people, there are more than 40 bakeries--all doing very well.

In France, specific breads and pastries are associated with each holiday. I know that back home, bakers are outdoing themselves--adding all kinds of fabulous treats to their staples, from breads shaped like St. Nicholas at the beginning of December, to special orders of “Buche de Noel,” a log-shaped sponge cake layered and frosted with chocolate butter cream, decorated with marzipan elves, meringue mushrooms and dusted with powdered sugar to imitate snow.

On Christmas morning, bakers in the North of France produce la couque. That is a rich egg bread studded with raisins and lumps of sugar, fashioned to suggest a baby wrapped in a bundle.

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The list of specialties would fill a book. The feast goes on through the New Year, ending on Jan. 6 with King’s Day, which brings a special almond-filled pie in which a token is hidden. The lucky one who finds it gets to be king or queen for a day.

Since I can’t afford to fly to Paris for Christmas, I set out to look for baked treats in Ventura County. Finding a really good cake or loaf of bread is a bit more of a challenge here than it is in France, but it can be done.

There are many good bakeries in the area, and the region’s ethnic diversity is reflected in the variety of available baked goods. On any given day, one can go out for Jewish bagels, Mexican conchitas , English scones or German brotchen .

Many of these breads are too good to be afterthoughts; whole meals can be planned around them. A basket full of conchitas , delicious sweet rolls, served with good brewed coffee and a fresh fruit salad, makes an easy and appealing breakfast.

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A loaf of Bill Baker’s fragrant garden loaf perks up a simple cup of soup and salad. Jalapeno/cheddar bread from Bread Basket is the perfect mate to a bowl of chili. The raisin challah from Viktor Benes is so beautiful that my family sat around it marveling at the rich, golden braids before daring to slice it.

Bread comes in many shapes, textures, and tastes, and taking a departure from usual brands is fun and rewarding. And searching for the ultimate loaf taught me a seemingly trivial but important fact. The biggest difference between France and America as far as bread is concerned can be summed up in one word: TOAST.

Americans tend to eat their bread toasted. They generally buy it for the week, sliced and wrapped in plastic to keep it from drying out. When popped in the toaster, if eaten right away, it has a crunch, is easily buttered and goes nicely with scrambled eggs.

The French, on the other hand, frequently don’t even own a toaster. They buy just enough bread for the day’s needs, an easy task since there are usually two or three bakeries within walking distance. Bread comes unwrapped or else in a paper bag to preserve the built-in crunch and texture.

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The net result of considering bread a once or twice a week purchase is that many bakeries here add dough conditioners and preservatives to the bread to give the illusion of freshness. I distrust any ingredient I can’t pronounce, and I find loaves containing additive generally mushy and unappealing. The better solution is to get to know which breads keep for several days and which must be eaten on the day they are baked.

Generally, denser, darker breads keep best. Whole wheat and seven grain are good for up to a week, especially toasted, and a dark rye loaf from the Ranch House Restaurant and Bakery in the Ojai Valley, when sliced thin, remained enjoyable even longer.

Bagels are best eaten within a day or two, while traditional French bread is only good if eaten really fresh. Its dough contains just white flour, salt, yeast and water, and goes stale within 24 hours.

Finding fine pastries is where the struggle really sets in. The rules about what ingredients may be employed and who may use the title of baker are a lot looser here than they are in France. Over there all would-be bakers must complete a rigorous three-year apprenticeship, and the French bakers guild-- which dates back to the Middle Ages--ensures that standards of quality are upheld.

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Bakeries here are much more of a mixed bag. Some who call themselves bakers do little more than stir water in prepackaged mixes. A lot of bakeries use cheap substitutes for butter and whipped cream, and though the cakes may look pretty, they taste fake.

The trouble is that having been raised with the real thing, I am forever spoiled. My taste buds are able to discern between butter and shortening, “Ready Whip” and real fresh dairy cream, superior and inferior qualities of chocolate. I am hard to please. But demanding customers contribute to raising overall baking standards, which is a good thing.

There are some outstanding pastry bakers around the county.

The pies at Bill Baker’s in Ojai are an incredible deal at just $6.50 each, and Pastry Palace in Ventura makes elaborate petits fours in the true European tradition.

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Erika’s and Viktor Benes, both in Westlake Village, are good spots for Jewish pastries. And Bread Basket in Las Posas Plaza takes the cake. Their creations will satisfy finicky gourmets.

The following list consists of the baked goods I found to be most outstanding during a three-week bakery tour that I did of Ventura County. It is by no means a definitive list of bakeries, and I apologize to those who may feel left out.

Local bakeries may not be, as in France, always within walking or jogging distance. But they are definitely worth the drive.

OJAI VALLEY

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THE RANCH HOUSE

South Lomita Avenue

Wednesday to Sunday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Consider a trip to the Ranch House Restaurant and Bakery, which for $1.95 buys the best dark rye bread I have ever tasted anywhere. Nestled in a lush garden setting on South Lomita Avenue in Meiners Oaks, The Ranch House is known far and wide for its superb food and world class wine list. Adjoining the restaurant is a small bakery, from which come breads of uncompromising quality. Aside from rye, they bake whole wheat, oatmeal, date nut and sesame soya breads. During the Christmas season, they also offer a German fruit bread and Madeira (Cherry-Nut) cake. The last time I was there, the baker was just setting some tantalizing fudge pies in the oven for the dinner guests. Even if you cannot afford the luxury of dinner there, do stop by for some bread. Priced between $1.95 and $2.40 a loaf, baked in small batches with nothing but the finest natural ingredients, it tastes like a piece of heaven.

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BILL BAKER’S BAKERY

457 E. Ojai Ave.

Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

In downtown Ojai, Bill Baker’s is the oldest bakery in the county. Owner Thomas Kohnen underwent traditional German training and produces a wide array of delicious breads and pastries, which his friendly wife, Colleen, helps to sell. The bakery’s sourdough culture has been used continuously since 1919, and is featured in a number of breads.

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My favorites were a dramatic looking black, rye and the white sourdough, which had a superb crust and flavor. Also worth noting is the Garden bread, a pretty loaf filled with onions and herbs. It is perfect with a bowl of soup, and if cubed and left to dry, makes delicious turkey stuffing.

Most of their breads are available in full size and in “senior loaves,” which are half the size of a regular loaf, with prices ranging from $1 for a senior-size loaf of sourdough, to $2.75 for a large loaf of Garden bread. The bakery is roomy, with a few tables where customers can enjoy coffee and a pastry.

For $1, I had a slice of pumpkin pie. The crust was crisp and flaky, and the perfectly spiced filling had a light, custard-like texture that may be the best I have ever tasted. Assorted fresh pies are sold whole for $6.50.

VENTURA

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CITY BAKERY

2358-C East Main St.

Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

City Bakery is as much cafe as bakery. Five-grain bread and sourdough baguettes are baked here everyday, plus a specialty bread, which varies from day to day.

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My favorite is City Bakery’s wild rice and onion bread. The fresh onions keep the flavor mild, and the wild rice adds a wonderful nutty taste. City Bakery’s other loaves run a little low on salt and taste too bland to be used as a side to a salad or soup. But as a base for City’s flavorful sandwiches, they are quite good. I really enjoyed the honey cured turkey breast and Swiss cheese on potato bread, served with a side of spicy potato salad. For dessert, try one of the fudge-like brownies. The chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons are good too--moist and not too sweet--but a bit heavy with almond extract. City also offers pies and cakes, but only on special order with a 48-hour notice. Breads retail for $2.40 to $2.80 a loaf. Muffins and scones are $1; macaroons, 50 cents; brownies, $1.25; and pies range from $10 to $14.

STRIMPLES BAGEL BAKERY

989-B East Main St. (at Laurel Street)

Tuesday through Saturday, 6:40 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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For a bagel with personality, try Strimples. Their bagels have a great chewy texture, and a rough crust that sets them apart from any bagel I have ever seen.

Owner Neal Novatt bakes the familiar sesame seed, poppy seed, egg and onion bagels, but he also uses the basic concept as a point of departure for some pretty adventurous experiments.

How about a honey strawberry, or a cheddar and fresh onion bagel? I had my doubts but tried them and was pleasantly surprised. They were delicious, especially the cheddar and onion bagel, which was a meal in itself.

“I don’t skimp,” says Novatt. “I use nothing but the finest ingredients, purified water, everything fresh, no additives.”

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Definitely worth a detour.

Bagels are priced from 60 cents to $1, each depending on the variety.

KAREN’S BAKERY

387 Main St.

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Weekdays, 8 a.m to 5 p.m.; Sundays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The place doesn’t look like much from the street, kind of funky and in bad need of a paint job. But don’t be put off by the decor, there is good stuff in there.

The honey bran muffins for 60 cents are a delight, cream cheese croissants ($1) are a bit heavy, but good. And the shepherd’s bread is excellent at just $1.50 a loaf, or six rolls for $1. They also serve a $2.50 cheese omelet breakfast special. No frills, but there is substance.

PASTRY PALACE

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91 S. Mills Road

Buenaventura Plaza

Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This one is a good destination for the sweet tooth: Owners Tim and Star Smith offer a full array of cookies, (25 cents apiece for simple butter cookies to 79 cents each for large Christmas cookies hand dipped in chocolate), hand rolled Danishes (99 cents each) and custom cakes for birthdays and weddings. They bake everything from scratch, including elaborate petits fours (89 cents) in the European tradition. These are filled with marzipan, raspberry preserves and whipped cream, sweet coconut and rum-dipped raisins under a coating of dark chocolate, or other deliciously sinful combinations. Their breads ($1.75 to $2.25) are adequate, but pastries are their forte.

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MIRABELLE’S

5920 Telegraph Road

Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Like Pastry Palace, Mirabelle’s is a full scale bakery, offering everything from dinner rolls to wedding cakes. I enjoyed the fudge nut cup (75 cents), a muffin shaped brownie that is set upside down with a fudge swirl and a walnut on top.

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New owners Tim Tottan and his wife Lisa produce a handsome loaf of French sourdough ($1.95) and on Tuesday and Friday a special German sourdough rye bread ($2.60). I just wish they would stock paper bags, in addition to the plastic ones, in which to package the bread so the crust would stay crusty.

OXNARD

LA ESPECIAL

Hueneme Road at Perkins Road

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Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

You can’t miss the bright yellow building that houses La Especial Bakery. There is a scent of cinnamon in the air, and the conchitas, are almost too pretty to eat. On the other hand, they are too good to resist eating.

This unpretentious bakery can provide you with a spectacular bread basket for a holiday brunch, at a price not to be beat. Conchitas range from 30 cents to 50 cents a piece. La Especial also prepares delicious burritos and other Mexican specialties.

CAMARILLO

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PARIS BAGUETTE BAKERY

2501 E. Ventura Blvd.

Monday-Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Paris Baguette is owned by a real French baker, who makes authentic baguettes, other French breads, brioche (small rolls made of a dough similar to egg bread) and, to my delight, proper croissants.

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If you want real French bread, look no further. Baguettes are $1.35, a dozen dinner rolls are $2. Croissants and brioches are $1 each.

FLANAGAN’S FLAGSHIP BAKERY

2235 E. Ventura Blvd.

Weekdays, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Closed Dec. 25-28 and Jan. 1 to Jan 4.

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Flanagan’s is a friendly place. There is warmth in the homey decor, and stopping there for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll in the morning will give your day a good start.

Good breads are reasonably priced, with a hefty loaf of squaw bread for $1.59, and a very rich, gooey sweet cinnamon bread for $2.29. For $10, Flanagan’s will bake you three dozen rolls shaped to resemble a turkey, from any of their regular bread doughs.

BREAD BASKET

83 Daily Drive, Las Posas Plaza

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Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed between Dec. 25 and Jan. 4th.

When it comes to top-of-the-line cakes using nothing but the finest ingredients, this is the place in Ventura county.

Owners Michael Blomquist and Gilbert Delagnes have the imagination and integrity of true artists. Their small, sophisticated shop is filled with spectacular cakes. They have excellent specialty breads as well, but don’t let the name of the place fool you. This one is about real butter, whipped cream, and Belgian chocolate.

For the holidays, they offer some cakes that are sure to put your guests in the spirit. Their Christmas fruit basket cake (assorted berries and custard cream between two layers of cake, wrapped in white chocolate and surrounded by chocolate dipped strawberries and holly leaves), for $35, will serve 12 to 18 guests.

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They also propose, for $60, a croquembouche (a steeple of cream puffs held together by caramel), decorated with chocolate truffles and holly leaves. It evokes a Christmas tree, and will satisfy at least thirty people. Other specialties are available, such as a Buche de Noel (Yule log), and a cake named “7 Swans a Swimming,” which is their own variation on the classic French St. Honore. Prices vary according to size.

THOUSAND OAKS

MRS. GOOCH’S NATURAL FOOD MARKET

435 E. Avenue de los Arboles

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9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 7 days a week

This is an adequate, though rather unimaginative bakery. The quality of ingredients is high, with many breads baked with organic flour, but perhaps the concern with producing healthful baked goods takes precedence over offering tasty ones.

The best was a rich corn bread, sweet and moist with corn kernels inside ($1.70). The whole wheat bread was overpriced at $2.95 for a loaf without enough personality. The fat-free, sugar-free apple cake ($11 whole or $2 a slice) was pretty, but badly needed some whipped cream on top.

WESTLAKE VILLAGE

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VIKTOR BENES CONTINENTAL BAKERY

2734 Townsgate Road

8 a.m. to 10 p.m., 7 days a week

Located in Gelson’s market, Viktor Benes presents a wonderful selection of Jewish breads. The corn rye, pumpernickel ($1.90 a loaf) and bagels (40 cents each) all met with resounding approval from friends.

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What I really loved was the challah ($3.10 a loaf with raisins). Beautifully braided and with a shiny crust the color of mahogany, it is marvelous to look at. It is also delectable.

They also offer delicious ruguloch, traditional Jewish cookies ($7.50 a pound). On the other hand, their baguette was limp and dull, worth missing entirely.

ERIKA’S

1014 S. Westlake Blvd.

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Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

I don’t know why the window of Erika’s is covered by a heavy curtain that hides the breads and cakes from passersby. Don’t let that stop you. Amongs the breads they offer, their cinnamon bread--a sugarcoated cylinder--is a definite crowd pleaser and makes very pretty French toast. The Dutch crunch is a white bread with a crunchy cracked meal topping, good for sandwiches. The Jalapeno cheese bread is a good accompaniment to a bowl of chili. Breads average $2 a loaf. Erika’s also has some attractive cakes ($21.25 to $28.50 for a quarter sheet, and cookies ($7.85 a pound).

ON BUYING BREAD & PASTRIES

When buying bread or pastries, be discerning and don’t be afraid to ask about ingredients.

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Avoid baked goods that contain additives, fillers or preservatives. (An unpronounceable ingredient is generally a good indicator.)

Some bakeries claim their cakes are baked using “real cream and butter.” Yes, but in what proportion? Is it nothing but real cream, or 10% real cream? Custard filling inside a cake should be thickened with mostly egg yolks, not mostly cornstarch. Butter cream topping should be made with real butter, and flavorings should be natural, not artificial.

It a bakery is selling French bread, it must have a hard crust--croustillante is the French word. There is no literal translation for it, but it carries the notion of something crusty, crackling and titillating at the same time. The dough inside should be rather dense, and soft as a baby’s cheek. It it contains anything but flour, water, yeast and salt, you are not getting the real thing.

French bread is best when very fresh, still warm if possible. If you must wait a few hours, don’t wrap it in plastic or it will lose its crunch.

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A true croissant isn’t just any crescent-shaped roll. It is a yeasted puff pastry dough, and from one-fourth to half of its weight should come from butter.

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to baking. Small honey-glazed bran muffins from a small bakery in downtown Ventura were scrumptious, while big bagels from a shop in Simi Valley were too doughy and without the requisite chewy texture. Better a small portion of something really special than a large second-rate piece.


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