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Relax, eat bread, repeat

Ian Conover and Tara Williams Conover, the husband and wife owners of Relax and Eat Bread, came up with the name for their bakery on a bike tour in Sweden.

“We kept hearing the phrase ‘fika’, which means ‘relax and take a coffee and pastry,’” Ian said. “We loved that sentiment, the culture of the country and all their bakeries.”

When they decided to open their own bakery, they considered the name “fika”, but did not want to be confused with coffee and pastry, so came up with the slogan “Relax and Eat Bread” and it seemed to stick.

“We also wanted people to know it’s okay to eat bread,” Tara said.

Bread has received a bad rap over the past couple of decades, especially with the surge in low-carb diets. However, there is a difference between the highly processed pre-packaged breads and what you will find from local bakers like Relax.

Whole wheat breads are nutritious and can actually be a healthy part of a balanced diet, even one aimed at weight loss, so long as consumed in moderation. With loaves like those from Relax, the bread is hardy enough and has enough flavor, even on its own, that even a little goes a long way.

Ian and Tara met during a study abroad program, while attending Santa Rosa Junior College. After six weeks in Granada, one week in Portugal for a school break and another six weeks in Madrid, Ian and Tara had developed a strong friendship. However, they did not start dating until seven years later, after both attending the same college, when “life aligned”, as Tara puts it, and have now been married for two years.

Ian was born in San Francisco but moved around as a child due his father’s work as a minister. He spent his formative years in upstate New York, in the Albany area, before returning to California in 1999.

After a short time in San Rafael, Ian’s family moved to Petaluma in 2000, where his father had joined a new congregation. Ian graduated from Casa Grande in 2005 and then attended SRJC, where he met Tara. He went on to study International Relations at San Francisco State University with the hopes of working abroad.

With the economy in recession upon his graduation, Ian took a job with Mike’s Bikes in Sausalito, which fed another of his passions – cycling. Eventually, he went on to manage the Mike’s Bikes in Petaluma and then again back in Sausalito before deciding to attend SRJC’s culinary program in 2015. And although he did not take the baking tract, the only baking class he did attend ended up being his favorite.

After the JC culinary program, Ian landed a position at Woodfour Brewing in the Barlow in Sebastopol, a kitchen with a reputation for turning out “much better than pub grub.” Later, he would move on to the kitchen at the Girl and the Fig, just off the Square in Sonoma.

“I learned a lot about moving around in a kitchen, time management, putting together menus and maximizing space,” Ian said. These would all be valuable skills once he decided to start baking bread at home in their tiny apartment kitchen.

Tara was born in Oakland but spent her first couple of years in Washington state before her family returned to California. The family relocated to Santa Rosa before she even started school, to be closer to her aging grandparents, who lived in San Leandro.

After attended the JC, like Ian, Tara attended San Francisco State University, where she studied sociology. But again, the economy was in the doldrums upon her graduation in 2009 so she continued with retail, as she had through school. She worked her way up through the management at Nordstrom’s, working at many of the Bay Area’s historic locations, including Hillsdale, Stonestown and the downtown location, across the street from the Market and Powell Streets cable car turnaround. She would eventually leave Nordstrom’s for a three-and-a-half-year stint at Sales Force as a recruiter.

When Tara was 27, she decided she wanted a different career path and so took some time off and traveled before moving back to Sonoma, where her parents still lived. She would eventually attend Dominican University in San Rafael for her teaching credential, before going on to earn her masters. In 2014, she started teaching 3rd grade at a charter school in Marin, where she still teaches.

“It was towards the end of 2017 when I took some of Ian’s bread to share in the school breakroom,” Tara said. “Everyone said it was really good, so I had to ask, ‘good enough that you’d buy it?’” The answer was an overwhelming yes and so the path was set.

“It was perfect,” Ian said. “We were engaged to get married the follow summer, so I saw this as a great way to help save for the wedding. I was still working five days a week at the Girl & the Fig but would spend my two days off baking.”

Their kitchen was small, but Ian made good use of it, even lining their electric oven with baking stones to great effect. In December of 2017, Ian was having enough success with his bread, with Tara handling the marketing and sales side of things, that he decided to go into baking full-time and so he quit his kitchen job. A short time later, the two moved to Petaluma, where they currently reside and where Ian produces all of Relax’s offerings in their cottage industry licensed kitchen.

“We tried farmers markets at first, but found that direct sales worked better,” Ian said. The two did delve into doing grilled cheese pop-ups at breweries such as HenHouse and Old Caz (Rohnert Park) but COVID put the kibosh on that for the time being.

Ian sources most of his ingredients from Petaluma’s own Keith Giusto Bakery Supply, which owns and sells high quality flour from Central Milling. Giusto also runs the Artisan Baking Center, which Ian gives a lot of credit for helping him hone his baking skills. As an attendee of a class there myself, I can attest to not only the skill level, but passion that ABC’s chef instructions have for their craft and am not at all surprised that Ian’s breads taste so good, what with ABC’s excellent tutelage and ingredient sourcing.

Relax and Eat Bread’s selection includes half a dozen different loaves of bread, English muffins, cookies and pizza dough. “My first bread was a semolina loaf, which uses a durum wheat,” Ian said. “We still do a durum sourdough, with a starter that I inherited from my mother.”

A sourdough starter is a combination of flour and water that ferments due its active colony of yeast and beneficial bacteria. The starter will change characteristics depending on its environment so must be attended to regularly, including the “feeding,” which means adding more flour and water. This required maintenance is why many bakers refer to their sourdough starter as their most temperamental child.

Along with the durum sourdough, other favorites regularly available from Relax include their polenta caramelized onion, oatmeal cinnamon raisin, caraway rye and super seeded wheat loaves. We were lucky enough to get our order in early so received loaves of everything but the caraway rye and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

After tasting Relax’s selection, we carved out some big chunks from each loaf and thoroughly enjoyed them while on a recent road trip, especially with some of the local cheese and honey we found along the way at roadside stands, small grocers and farmers markets.

One of their biggest sellers, Relax’s pizza dough also presented a new experience for our family.

“I got a mixer around March, just prior to the pandemic,” Ian said. “This allowed me to expand my menu. And still working out of our small home kitchen.”

Being able to make things like pizza dough and English muffins adds to Ian’s production capacity because neither requires oven time, where Ian’s loaves baking is pretty close to maximum capacity.

“We are not as big as people think,” laughs Tara. “Our baker is also our driver and delivery guy.”

Both the pizza dough and the English muffins came by way of recipes in a Central Milling newsletter. However, pizza is nothing new to Ian. “In Ian’s family, pizza is like a food group,” says Tara. “But when made well, you really don’t get tired of it.”

Although I love good pizza, from time to time, especially my favorite both as a child and an adult, Old Chicago Pizza, as well as the thin-crusted delights on the other end of the spectrum over at Wild Goat Bistro, pizza is not a regular part of our diet. We love it, but do not eat a lot of it, what with all the other great cuisines available in town.

However, when it comes to making our own pizza, until getting dough from Relax, we had never made it at home before. I was lucky enough to get a private pizza-making lesson from Wild Goat Bistro owner Nancy De Lorenzo a few years back while helping to organize the now-defunct Taste of Petaluma food fundraiser. Growing up as a deep-dish lover, I was surprised at how much I loved Nancy’s thin-crust pizzas, but there is just something special about the simple yet elegant and flavorful ingredients.

Needless to say, that lesson was years ago and since that time, we had never seen a good reason to try to top what all the great pizza places in town were already doing so well. That is until we discovered Liberty Ducks sausages, which we wanted to taste on top of a pizza.

We saw Relax’s ready-to-bake pizza dough as a perfect opportunity to get creative. We took the easy route with our first home pizza endeavor and simply rolled the dough out by hand (no tossing here.) It put up a bit of a fight, wanting to bounce back towards its balled-up original shape, but we eventually won out.

We topped the naked dough with pizza sauce, andouille duck sausage and Bivalve Dairy’s Mendoca cheese. Produced here in Petaluma, with milk from their Tomales Bay dairy, Bivavle’s Mendoca is an aged Portuguese-inspired cheese which we have been using instead of parmesan ever since first discovering it about a year ago, with the help of Petaluma Market’s cheesemonger extraordinaire, Marie Schmittroth. And although one might not think to use an aged cheese for pizza, we were working without any constraints, mostly because we had never made pizza before, so did not know any better. Well, as luck would have it, the Mendoca melted just fine and went excellently with the duck sausage. And thankfully, the dough from Relax was quite forgiving, so even though we surely did not prep it properly, the whole thing came out so good that we have plans to make pizza at home regularly.

Another pandemic era addition to Relax’s repertoire is their English muffin, which in all honest is one of, if not the best, we have ever had. Unlike other breads, English muffin batter often includes milk or cream and sometimes even has eggs in it. Also unlike most breads, where kneading helps to create strong gluten bonds, which lends itself to a more dense texture, English muffin dough gets minimal handling. This leads to weaker gluten bonds, which in turn creates a looser internal structure, also called the “crumb structure,” which results in all those great nooks and crannies once split open. They are also usually fried on a skillet, like a pancake, so as mentioned, do not compete for space in Ian’s bread oven. This direct heat also gives English muffins their springy feel, credited to the suddenly warmed gases expanding into the dough during cooking.

Last, but certainly not least in our order, were the rye chocolate chip cookies. The ‘rye’ part threw us off at first as we are not bakers and so did not understand that rye is simply another type of flour. As far as the flavor, these are some incredible cookies that nobody would ever guess were made with something other than standard wheat flour. In fact, they seem a bit more decadent than your standard chocolate chip cookie, which is a good thing in our book.

Currently, with Ian as baker and delivery guy, Relax delivers to Petaluma and Santa Rosa on Wednesdays and Sonoma on Friday. There is no minimum order, but those with lesser bread needs are encouraged to collaborate with neighbors so Ian is not driving out with just a single loaf. For us, we would not even think of placing an order without including a couple of cookies, a bag of English muffins, a ball of pizza dough and at least one loaf of bread. We find that the loaves easily stay fresh on our shelf for a week, although it is a challenge to resist them for that long.

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