Baker’s dozen: To Berkeley from a brick oven in Marin

Eduardo Morell mans the oven at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. Photos: Eric Smith

As commutes go, Eduardo Morell knows he’s onto a good thing. The south-west Berkeley dweller spends 35 minutes behind the wheel before he reaches the bucolic setting that is home to the Headlands Center for the Arts near Sausalito, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He’s greeted by fresh air, windswept hills, blue (or fog-filled) skies, the sound and smell of the ocean, and the seasons on display.

It is, without doubt, a special spot. That Morell gets to call it his workplace only makes it more magical.

The baker behind Morell’s Bread spends two 14- to 16-hour days at this artists’ enclave in a collection of former army barracks in the Marin Headlands, where he bakes naturally leavened bread in a wood-burning brick oven designed by master-builder Alan Scott. His loaves are served up to the artists-in-residence and sold at the Thursday and Saturday farmers’ markets in Berkeley.

Once his long shift ends, Morell heads home in the wee hours of the morning dodging deer, racoons, coyotes and other nocturnal creatures on his way out  — and navigating a freeway that, he says, at that time of day he shares with huge tractor-trailers, the Highway Patrol, and drunk drivers.

His handmade, whole-wheat, sourdough hearth breads, bagels, and scones have a following among the farmers’ market set; Michael Pollan is a frequent customer (multigrain bread, fruit scones). Morell’s artisan approach is highlighted in the recently published “D.I.Y. Delicious” by local cookbook author Vanessa Barrington, and was featured on KQED’s science program QUEST (see video, below).

Morell, 41, got his start at the Headlands as an intern in 1998 under then-chef Jessica Prentice (who now runs the community kitchen Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley). He has held several positions at the arts center, including chef, kitchen manager, and baker. A former experimental filmmaker, the self-taught, small-batch baker learned traditional techniques from a French chef who baked at the Headlands.

Prior to getting hired at the Headlands, Morell left California for a year to work in North Carolina as an assistant-chef to author Reynolds Price, whom he baked bread for every week. Morell hails from a science-minded family and was intrigued by both the art and craft of bread making.

Over the years, this baker of Puerto Rican heritage has developed his own signature style for a bread that begins with a few simple raw ingredients: sourdough starter, locally milled flours, salt, and water. His textured loaves, which sport an open crumb and crisp crust, can also be found on the menu at Bar Agricole in San Francisco.

After years of Marin dwelling, he moved to Berkeley three years ago and lives with his musician wife, daughter, and dog near San Pablo Park.

What do you like about living in Berkeley?

We’re closer to family; my wife’s mother and brother are here. And we’re closer to the farmers’ market — so I’m home within minutes after the market. I like the cultural diversity, there’s a lot more of it here than in Marin County. Geographically it’s so beautiful in Marin, you can’t beat it. But demographically it’s more challenging. It just feels right to raise a child in a place that’s so diverse and interesting.

What do you like about baking in Marin?

I really like working with a wood-fire, brick oven; that’s a big draw. It is actually a very sustainable form of heat. There’s very little pollution when you have a single fire happening in this big, open area with lots of trees, which essentially act as carbon scrubbers.

Going there is just a breath of fresh air–literally. I drive through that tunnel, roll down the window and it’s all ocean and trees. The kitchen is open and full of light. It’s hard to replicate that environment. I’ve developed nice relationships there over 13 years now. It’s both a rejuvenating space and a professional home.

How would you characterize your loaves?

My bread is made with a sourdough starter and fermented, which gives it a complex flavor profile. I make multigrain, spelt, sesame, rye, and rosemary breads that are all naturally leavened and nutritious. I don’t make a fluffy loaf of bread with lots of white flour. My loaves are made with thought, care, and love.

When people think of Berkeley and bread, they likely think of Acme — how are you different?

Acme is huge, they’re baking 24-hours a day, seven days a week. I’m smaller in scale and have no designs to be big. Acme’s Steve Sullivan gave local artisan bread its start in the area. His company makes wonderful things and their bread is good. But they do something really different from what I do. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

How would you describe your customers?

They’re fiercely loyal, discerning, and picky. I’m picky too so I’m fine with that. They value what I do and they’re willing to pay for it. My loaves cost $5 on up. I’ve been doing the markets now for almost 10 years and if I don’t show up for market one day — even if I give them a lot of notice — they’re all like “don’t do that to me again” and they ask the other vendors if I’m leaving. Most people who come by are repeat customers, maybe 80%. About 60% are regulars, we don’t even have to speak, I know what they want and I just get it for them.

Can you give us a sense of the culture of the farmers’ markets as a vendor?

It’s an incredibly loving, supportive, and generous environment. There’s a real sense of community among the vendors and the customers. It’s not large and unwieldy. It’s very civilized. And I do a lot of my food shopping there. I trade with Cultured, Happy Boy, Today’s Special, Avalos, Blossom Bluff, Bernie’s Best, Saint Benoit, and other farmers and food producers on a regular basis.

Is there any restaurant in Berkeley that carries your bread?

No, but I’d like to see my bread on the menu at Gather  — it seems like a good fit for them. I could see my bread paired with their cheese plate or the vegan charcuterie.

Do you see yourself baking bread 10 years from now?

Not in the current way I’m doing it, it’s just not sustainable. Baking is a physically demanding job. But I love teaching and I would love to teach people how to bake bread.

Eduardo Morrell was interviewed by KQED about his work:

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related:
Michael Pollan: New food rules, but no need to be neurotic [11.02.11]
Alex Hozven and Kevin Farley, Cultured Pickle Shop [07.09.10]
Ben Feldman, Farmers’ Market man [06.18.10]
Jessica Prentice: co-founder of Three Stone Hearth [06.04.10]
Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, Gather Restaurant [03.26.10]

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  • Neil

    Very interesting article.

  • deirdre

    Interesting profile and I loved the photo at the top.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTAORC2LANQF2ONEFJYXBSITTA bingo

    bakers work incredibly hard.  I feel like I see people at the one near my place working 24/7.  more active than the police station, ha!

  • Julie Wong

    Ed makes wonderful bread and fruit scones.  Thanks for this profile.

  • Anonymous

    Morrells bread is amazing. I think I’ll get some today!

  • Claudia

    How many loaves does he bake each week or each baking day? How big is the oven? How many loaves are in it at a time?

  • Sarah Henry

    Morell told me he bakes around 500 loaves a week, as well as about 120 bagels and 150 scones.