Kathleen Weber, Della Fattoria
Della fattoria. These two little words are on countless handcrafted Italian products. Meaning “from the farm” or “made on the farm,” della fattoria implies a commitment to craft, to a place and to a way of life. For Kathleen and Edmund Weber and their family, Della Fattoria is all of those things. It is also the name of the breads produced on their multi-generational family farm.
It all started with eggs. On a swath of land in the heart of Petaluma, Edmund’s parents ran a chicken and egg farm from the 1930s until the late ’60s. At a time when many families were scaling up their businesses, the Weber family decided to stay small. By the late ’60s, the business was no longer viable and the Webers exited chicken and eggs.
About the same time, Edmund met Kathleen at a Santa Rosa Junior College drama class. “He was Harold Hill in Music Man and I was the Piccolo Lady,” laughs Kathleen. Married in 1965, the pair moved back to the Weber’s farm to help Edmund’s parents.
Struck with the bohemian bug, Kathleen and Edmund surrounded themselves with dramatists and philosophers, musicians and writers. Everyone came when Kathleen did the cooking.
“Feeding all those people changed the way I cooked,” she says. “I became fearless.” From that phase of life, filled with good food and laughter, came a desire to make bread. Edmund senior was, until then, the family baker and bread making soon took on an air of a bake-off, a competition to see whose bread was better.
“I was taken with the breads in Carol Field’s The Italian Baker,” says Kathleen. “From her book, I learned all about fermented Italian breads.” Pugliese and other Italian breads soon followed. In appearance and taste, Kathleen’s creations were a far cry from her father-in-law’s wheat breads, breads that the family now tenderly refers to as “dough cement.” Having won the family bake-off, Kathleen’s home-baked breads quickly developed a local following: starting with 14 weekly customers and a regular delivery route.
And, as summer follows spring, Kathleen’s baking soon went through its own evolution. A wish for a wood-burning oven was seized upon by the family as the perfect gift for Kathleen’s 50th birthday. It was quickly decided that Alan Scott, the North Bay’s godfather of wood-burning stoves, would hold a workshop at the Weber farm. (For more information on Alan Scott, see the Winter 2012 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country and also OvenCrafters.net.) That was 1994. The oven-raising workshop at the farm, like all of Scott’s workshops, was a collaborative effort; everyone who came gave their sweat equity in exchange for knowledge.
“There were a few chefs there,” says Kathleen. By then, Edmund and Kathleen’s son, Aaron, was working as a chef at the Sonoma Mission Inn.
Kathleen sent loaves of bread with Aaron when he went to work and requested feedback from the chefs. When Aaron’s boss, Chef Mark Vann, held an olive oil tasting at BR Cohn, Kathleen supplied the bread, her Pugliese, for bruschetta. Vann liked it so much, he asked Kathleen to become the bread supplier to the Sonoma Mission Inn. “He said ‘Can you start delivery in 30 days?’ He was talking about 60 loaves a day and 120 on the weekends.” Kathleen set her network to work and, via Michel Suas and the San Francisco Baking Institute, soon found a trainer who could help her business—now officially a business—scale up to meet the new demand.
“I went from working with a five-quart mixer to a 70-quart spiral mixer,” says Kathleen. That was 1995. Della Fattoria was officially in business.
Large gear (and the health department) meant Kathleen had to move her operation out of the kitchen and reconfigure the deck where the hearth had been set up to turn it into a proper bake house. Plus, she needed more oven space. It took a bit of doing to put the pieces in place. The original oven was torn down and two more ovens were built. The deck became a room. The requirements of the health department were met.
Meanwhile, word of her breads was spreading, rapid-fire, through the chef community. The French Laundry became a customer after their first remodel in 1995; Auberge du Soleil and Petaluma Market followed soon after. Narsai David tried the bread on a visit to the Sonoma Mission Inn and talked about it on his KCBS radio program.
“Our first bread was wrapped in kraft paper,” Kathleen says. “It looked just like a diaper.” Yet people loved the rustic character and earthy charm of the breads. It was a time when the Slow Food movement was starting to take off in Sonoma, when the awareness of organic ingredients and the value of locally produced goods was beginning to lift off.
In 1996, Della Fattoria began to sell breads at the Sonoma Valley Farmers’ Market. “Baking is kind of lonely,” says Kathleen. “At the farmers’ market, you could really see the joy of sharing bread.” The following year, Aaron left behind his career in restaurant kitchens to join his mother in the bakery. A pastry program followed, then farmers’ markets in Marin and San Francisco.
A program was developed at the bakery for student apprentices to come in and learn the art and craft of bread making. In the early 2000s, Kathleen and Aaron had the bakery going full-tilt in the week just before Easter. Kathleen was out on a delivery run when a call came in from one of her apprentices.
“It was an extern from the CIA,” Kathleen says. “He called and said ‘I used up all of the starter. What do I do now?’” For many bakers, losing their starter is equivalent to losing a cherished family heirloom. Kathleen, however, took it in stride.
“I am never nervous about giving people our starter recipe.” Why? It is the nature of starter to take on the character of place, to acquire the unique yeasts and pollens and other tiny bits that flow through the air wherever the baker is putting hand to flour. “When you take it home, it becomes yours,” she says. It is as simple as that.
For her Easter deliveries, Kathleen turned to the first bread of the day and used it as the beginning of a new starter. “It is as much a team player as any baker. You rely on it,” she says. Done and done.
In 2003, Edmund opened the Della Fattoria Café in downtown Petaluma. Edmund and Kathleen’s daughter, Elisa, came on to manage the café. Aaron joined Executive Chef Kay Baumhefner in the café kitchen, splitting his time between the demands of the bakery and the demands of the café.
“We entertained all the time,” says Kathleen, who thought the convivial family-style environment of her home would translate well to the café setting. Though there are many smaller tables, a large community table anchors the room, giving patrons the chance to dine and interact with the broader community, to meet others who value the joys of the table.
More recently, Kathleen connected with Carol Field, the baker and cookbook author who inspired Kathleen to begin her own bread journey. Over two days, Kathleen and Carol baked bread and shot countless photos, many of them included in the publication of Field’s The Italian Baker, Revised: The Classic Tastes of the Italian Countryside in 2011. “It completed the circle,” Kathleen says. Meanwhile, Kathleen’s book, Della Fattoria Bread is expected in autumn of this year.
Now 20 years into the bread business, Kathleen has no plans to retire. Though she handed off the majority of the bread making duties to Head Baker Isaac Cermak (who, fittingly, began his career at Della as an 18-year-old apprentice from Santa Rosa Junior College), Kathleen still handles all the orders, develops the recipes and checks in on the bakery. Aaron has taken over as head chef of the café while Elisa now manages the business’s marketing, the family garden, Della’s on-property vacation rentals and all other events at the farm.
And Edmund? In addition to the café, Edmund manages the farmers’ markets and, together with Elisa, manages the family farm and gardens, the source of much of the eggs (the farm has 60 chickens now) and produce served at the café.
Family, community, hearth, table. These concepts define Della Fattoria. The Italian name is an affirmation of the family’s commitment to making bread in a certain traditional way, breads with a sense of place and a rustic country character. The Webers’ commitment to craft is evident from the first bite to the last—big-hearted, full-bodied, soulful. It tastes just like food produced on a farm in the heart of Sonoma’s chicken and egg country should.