French bread extraordinaire at Santa Rosa’s Gougette
When he was growing up in Tehran, Nas Salamati of Santa Rosa used to watch his grandmother cook the classic dishes of Persia, aromatic with spices such as saffron and coriander, cardamom and turmeric.
“She made some very complex, tasty dishes,” said Salamati, 52, who now runs Goguette Bread in Santa Rosa with help from his wife, nutritionist Nagine Shariat, and their 11-year-old daughter, Soraya.
Since opening in January, the European-style, family-owned bread bakery has drawn a following among local foodies for the flavorful, long-fermented sourdough loaves that Salamati bakes to crusty perfection in a huge, masonry oven he imported from France.
Whether made from whole wheat or rye, studded with chocolate or green olives, shaped into round miches or gently folded into a 3-foot-long “pain de partage” (bread to share), the fresh, flavorful loaves have been snatched up by locals looking for an artisanal bread to complement the local cheeses and meats, vegetables and wines of the region.
“I think bread is the most basic food to humans, and when you make it with care and love, there is a passage of energy,” Salamati said of his new trade. “People are finding out that bread, especially with all the great ingredients we have here, can elevate the rest of the table.”
A second, magical career
What’s most astonishing about this small, gem of a bakery, however, is that Salamati was educated as an engineer and only fell in love with baking bread about 10 years ago. He is basically self-taught, having read books, worked in French bakeries and sought out mentors in local experts such as Mike “the bejkr” Zakowski of Sonoma and owner Jed Wallach of Wild Flour Bakery in Freestone.
“What it adds, not just to Santa Rosa, but the whole North Bay Community, is a piece of the Old World in the New World,” said Gence Alton, a regular customer from Santa Rosa. “Every bread I take from them is near perfection in both look and smell and taste and nutrition … their breads are about finesse, and that’s very hard to obtain with dough.”
By launching a second career in the magical interaction between flour and water, the professional couple - he’s worked mostly in high tech, she’s a private nutritionist - feel that in an odd and wonderful way, they have come full circle.
“All the travel we’ve done was always directed by food,” Shariat explained. “We feel like it was meant to be. It was our destiny.”
“There’s so much discipline in engineering and in bread,” Salamati added. “And my engineering background has helped shorten my learning curve.”
A Renaissance man at heart, Salamati left Iran with his parents the night before the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979. Because his family spoke French, they ended up in Montreal, where he got his BA in electrical engineering. He later got an MBA from Colorado State University.
Throughout his career, Salamati has always worked in hardware, designing microchips and systems for everything from robotic arm cameras used in outer space to continuous glucose-monitoring systems used inside the human body. He and his wife moved to Santa Rosa in 1996 when he got a job with Next Level Communications in Rohnert Park.
Ancient ideas, modern twist
But about 10 years ago, the engineer’s curiosity was piqued by the idea of baking bread with levain, a natural starter and living organism made from a fermented blend of flour and water, which has been used by bakers for centuries. Around the same time, the bread world was starting to rediscover the healthy properties of ancient grains like khorasan, commercially known as kamut, which originated in Persia.
Since then, Salamati has been on a quest to bring together the best of ancient bread-baking techniques with modern research into ways to make bread more healthy and nutritious.
“Now the science is looking into what made that ancient bread so digestible,” he said. “I tell customers that right now, we are racing to go back in time to find out how bread was made before, and combining that knowledge with science today.”
In the future, Salamati’s dream is to starting milling his own ancient grains that would, ideally, be grown by local farmers.
“Old grains are healthier and more nutritious, but we need a bridge to get there,” he said. “We need access to the grain and better infrastructure for harvesting and cleaning the grain.”
Meanwhile, his customers are happy to taste through Salamati’s current line of eight different, handmade breads, which are inspired by traditional recipes but also reflect the baker’s own style. His levain (starter) traveled from the French Alps to the U.S. over a decade ago, but can change according to how it is fed and the variables of time, temperature and water percentages.