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The French (Bread) Connection in a Bourgeois California Town

Najine Shariat at Goguette for bread story.

“It’s curious, but often true, that the further one travels from Paris, the closer one gets to French traditions.”

Bread has a bad rap these days and rightly so. Not all of it, but way too much of it tastes like cardboard and has little if any nutritional value. That’s true in the U.S. and also in France, the birthplace of the boulangerie, where real bread is now largely a thing of the past. The French also over eat and suffer from diabetes, just like Americans, and like people all over the world who are poisoning themselves to death with chemicals and junk food that’s manufactured by giant corporations such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Tyson. Activists are pushing back and so are small health-conscious entrepreneurs.

A loaf of white bread costs the equivalent of about $2 in Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux, and doesn’t taste remotely like bread. No wonder the French are indignant, engagée and protesting in the streets, as they’ve done for the past year or so. Giving them cake to eat won’t solve social problems and food issues.

A baguette costs a bit more than $2 in Sonoma County, California where no one lives by bread alone—not even the homeless—but where it’s still possible to purchase a real baguette that tastes the way a baguette is supposed to taste. Real baguettes and fougasse, which is similar to Italian focaccia, are available at Goguette, where elegance marries practicality. The boulangerie, which is near downtown, is owned and operated by Najine Shariat and Nas Salamati, who explains that, “The best breads in France today are in the villages, not in the big cities.”

Nas adds that the one exception to that rule is Poilâne, a bakery in the Sixth arrondissement in Paris that makes bread the old fashioned way and ships it around the world, though not to Santa Rosa, where he and Najine have cornered the quality pain market and serve as ambassadors for French culture in more than one way. They also wear the traditional outfits favored by French bakers, and look like they’ve just stepped off a boat from Le Havre.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re close to Santa Rosa or far away. This isn’t a review of a bakery, but rather a snapshot of a cultural phenomenon in a northern California town, which can seem awfully provincial and rather bourgeois, too. You can enjoy a taste of Coguette without actually going there, though an in-person visit is recommended.

It’s curious, but often true, that the further one travels from Paris, the closer one gets to French traditions. Quebec City is an example of that. So is Santa Rosa, California which is home to Goguette and to a handful of French-style cafés and restaurants, like Chloe’s and La Gare that appeal to Francophiles.

Goguette is the real French connection for bread.

Najine Shariat and Nas Salamati are unusual bread makers, as their names suggest. Their boulangerie sits rather anonymously in a small commercial zone next to Zaftig Eatery. Najine was a clinical nutritionist in France and a fan of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir before coming to the U.S. Her husband, Nas Salamati, worked as an electrical engineer, then fell in love with bread and learned from some of the masters of the craft in France.

At Goguette, the bread is made from local, organic ingredients. It tastes like real bread and it has real nutritional value. That’s a combination hard to beat. Nas and Najine use traditional recipes, along with live, rather than commercial, yeast. Their not-so-secret-secret is “Levain,” a natural starter and a living organism similar to sourdough. Bakers all around the world have used it for centuries. “Levain” is French for wild yeast.

Decades ago, Nas and Najine brought their Levain to California from the French Alps. Now, it has some of the aromas and properties unique to Sonoma County. Nas explains that Levain-based breads slow down the release of sugars in the blood stream and lower the glycemic index. He adds that while they are not perfect for people who are overweight and have diabetes, they come close.

Author and UC Berkeley professor, Michael Pollan, who knows food from the inside and the outside, tells his many fans and followers that mass produced commodities that pass for bread and which are sold in supermarkets today have been so radically transformed by the industrial manufacturing process that they’re no longer easy for humans to digest.

Nas and Najine don’t have assembly line production and don’t do anything fast. They’ve adopted the long, slow fermentation method that Pollan and others endorse, which allows bacteria to breakdown carbohydrates and glutens, release nutrients and make bread digestible.

Aside from the health factor, there’s another good reason to shop at Coguette. Najine takes time to explain to customers what kind of bread they should buy and eat with what kind of foods.

She says, “Selling bread at the front counter of our bakery is like working in nutrition.” Her philosophy is: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what bread to have.” To most of her customers paring a particular bread with an appetizer or an entrée, is a totally new concept.

Pain de ville goes with chicken and potatoes, she says. Pain de campagne pairs well with coq au vin (chicken cooked in red wine). Rye bread (and butter) is near perfect with salmon, or with oysters and bubbly. One shopper explained he was having pasta with red sauce for dinner. Najine suggested he buy a pain de champagne and take it home. He did. He also couldn’t resist the brioche provençal, which is rounded and has sugar on top.

If Najine and Nas have their say, they’ll alter the way Sonoma County eats bread, in much the same way that vintners and chefs have transformed wine and food parings. While they speak French fluently and are infused with French culture and tradition, Nas and Najine were both born in Iran before the 1979 revolution that toppled the monarchy and created an Islamic Republic.

When they were still kids, they left Iran for France, taking with them some of their Persian heritage. One thing that especially impressed them soon after they arrived in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, was that schools provided gourmet meals for students at lunchtime.

“They were educating the young in the ways of French culture,” Najine says.

She and Nas learned to appreciate French food and wine. They still eat and drink in traditional French ways, though they’re not foodies in the California sense of the word, where food can become a thing in and of itself, almost apart from daily life. “A foodie appreciates everyday food that can have simple ingredients,” Najine says.

Recently, an elderly gentleman wearing a beret ambled into Coguette and faced Najine. He had lamb and rabbit that he was going to cook. All he need was bread. Najine offered him a slice of pain de champagne. He took a bite, chewed, swallowed and broke into tears. When Najine asked why he was crying, he explained (in French of course), “It tastes the way the bread my mother made in the village where we lived.” Ah, the French, they are so sentimental and so Proustian! A mere taste can bring back a flood of memories from childhood.

So far, mostly locals shop at Coguette, but French tourists would be advised to take a detour from Wine Country, try the pain at Nas and Najine’s shop and reconnect with their heritage. Californians on the road might find their way to the tiny boulangerie, where the line for bread goes out the front door and along the sidewalk, though it moves quickly.

When you walk inside, close your eyes and breath. You might think you’re in the France of old. On a Wednesday afternoon, a middle aged Santa Rosa man named Peter bought enough bread to feed his whole family for a week, three meals a day. He also practiced his French and explained that the students, k-6, from the nearby French-American Charter School came to the bakery to parlez français. Nas and Najine founded the school, where French and English are both spoken. It’s the only public school of its kind in the U.S. to have a seal of approval from the French Ministry of Education. Now that’s something to cluck about, especially with a slice of bread and butter.

Hey, do yourself a favor. Stop buying and eating crappy mass-produced bread. Liberate yourself. Find a bakery that does what Goguette does, or close to it and treat yourself to bread that tastes good and that’s also healthy.

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