Mariposa Baking offers the sweet life to the gluten-free

on March 22, 2011

There is nothing more disappointing than comfort food that causes discomfort. People with allergies to gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye and barley—have to say no to pizza, pasta and pastries made using traditional ingredients. Nothing can be bought off the shelf without a thorough read-through of the ingredients. Waiters at restaurants have to be interrogated about how entrees are cooked. But there is a haven for the gluten-free tucked away in a red brick alley in Temescal.

Traffic on route 24 whizzes by the gluten-free bake shop and cafe that is tucked in an alley in Temescal.

Mariposa Baking is a gluten-free artisan bakery that produces a full line of baked goods and stocks their shelves with other gluten-free grocery items. The 3,000 square foot warehouse has a bakery in the back that churns out small batches of breads and pastries every day. There is a tiny coffee shop up front, where on one recent morning patrons were noshing on bagels with cream cheese schmears, truffle brownies and the shop’s beloved “beet loaf” sandwich—that’s a veggie patty made with beets, lentils, onion, garlic and other veggies on a toasted bun dressed with slaw.

The clang of bowls and baking pans echoed through the high ceilings as workers prepared dough for the next batch of bread. But the hustle and bustle of the bakery didn’t affect the intimate calm of the coffee shop up front, where a few customers were reading or tapping away on their laptops.

A display case offered an array of freshly made choices: apple galette, cinnamon rolls, and heart-shaped Linzer cookies filled with fruit preserves. On the counter were samples of the shop’s new rustic French loaf.  It offered all the sensory pleasures a good baguette should: crusty edges that bruise the roof on the mouth but yield to bread with a light, airy softness.

Gluten adds elasticity and creates the chewy texture found in most bread, and without it, many gluten-free eaters complain that bread can be brick-like or crumbly. Kate Wadsworth, who had popped in to shop for a daughter who is starting a gluten-free diet, chatted with another customer while the French baguette she purchased rested on the table. She said that Mariposa’s baked goods had passed muster with her daughter. “She liked the French bread and sandwich bread,” she said. “It’s the first [gluten-free] bread she actually liked.”

Treats that would be off limits at other bakeries are available for the gluten-free to enjoy.

Mariposa Baking founder Patti Furey Crane wants to make the bakery’s gluten-free fare indistinguishable from what you might buy at any other bakery. The chocolate chip cookies have crisp edges and tender chewy centers.  The pumpkin spice muffins are moist. And that’s important to gluten-free folks who have had to watch wistfully as their friends indulged in baked goods. “I’ll go to a bakery with my partner or with other bakeries with friends and I just feel sad,” said customer Linda Moll, who has both a gluten allergy and a mom with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten. “I won’t be able to eat the macaroons.”

“Being able to eat anything in this bakery is so wonderful,” Moll continued.  “It’s just exciting to come here.  I love the people who work here.  It feels homey and they know me.  It’s like Cheers—the gluten-free bakery Cheers.”

“We’re a niche,” said Crane of her bakery’s philosophy.  “The people who know about us are the people who are looking for us. We cater to a gluten-free community.”

That community includes people with wheat allergies and celiac disease, a condition in which the body’s internal defense system attacks gluten, damaging the small intestine. The symptoms can be painful and awkward: gas, diarrhea, bloating, cramps, fatigue and weight loss due to malnutrition from improper digestion.

According to a paper published in April 2009 by the Gluten Intolerance Group, a non-profit group based in Auburn, Washington that provides support to people with gluten intolerances, one in 133 people in the United States—or potentially 2 million people—have celiac disease.  The paper also claims that for every person diagnosed, approximately 80 people are undiagnosed.

Deborah Fishman was shopping for goods to help her reduce the gluten in her kids' diet.

Other people choose to jettison gluten from their diet because it can agitate symptoms from various autoimmune diseases, or because they have a wheat allergy. People with allergies don’t suffer the intestinal damage associated with celiac disease, but still face abdominal discomfort.

For people with gluten-related health concerns, it’s not enough to simply avoid baked goods. Gluten can turn up in unexpected places like soy sauce, non-dairy creamer or chewing gum. That’s why Crane also stocks Mariposa with other gluten-free grocery products.

On a recent afternoon customer Fabienne Jach, who has celiac disease, was making her way toward Mariposa’s tiny parking lot carrying a bounty of butternut squash ravioli, cheese ravioli and a frozen pre-baked veggie pizza that she’d just bought inside. “I am at peace when I go there,” she said. “I can pick up anything and not worry about it being compromised in any way. It’s a relief.”

“It’s a pain because of the level of awareness I have to have,” she said of her dietary restrictions.  “One tiny mistake in a restaurant means I’m sick for a week.”

Mariposa founder Crane grew up in the Hudson Valley in upper New York State with a family of avid bakers, but she didn’t originally intend to open a bakery.  She studied residential architecture for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, which brought her to Illinois, then to Oregon before she came to the Bay Area to stay.  When she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis she adopted a gluten-free diet because she heard it would reduce her symptoms. She said the strategy worked well for her.

While pregnant with her first daughter, Crane craved sweets and baked up a storm, altering favorite family recipes to make them gluten-free. After her daughter was born in 2004, Crane decided to open a bakery. She started out making brownies and biscotti in a wholesale kitchen in West Berkeley.

But when it came to actually selling the baked goods, Crane had her work cut out for her. “Store buyers didn’t know what gluten-free was,” she said.  “We had to educate a lot of people about gluten-free.”

In 2007, the business moved to its current location, the retail bakeshop at 5427 Telegraph in Oakland.

Crane is constantly innovating and adding to her menu based on customers requests or her own desire to have items that she misses while practicing a gluten-free diet. This led to the creation of the “yummy tart,” a cousin of the Pop-Tart. Cream-filled vanilla cupcakes called “Polar Bears” and chocolate cream filled cupcakes called “Penguinos” fill the void left by the loss of Twinkies and Hostess chocolate cupcakes.

“Having a fresh Pop Tart is so nice,” said Crane enthusiastically. “We have a lot of classic junk food. I considered last year our ‘80s-theme junk food year—all the things people miss from growing up in the ‘80s.”

Many of Crane’s customers appreciate her attention to replicating the taste of foods they loved in the past, but can’t eat any more. Jach, who is French and grew up in Lebanon, grew up eating the classic baguette, but said it’s hard to find a good gluten-free version. The one at Mariposa, she said, is “the closest you can get to how I used to relate to baguette. Food is so emotional and we have all the memories attached to particular items.  For me baguettes remind me of my childhood.”

Mariposa's baguette is such a rare find for the gluten-free that Whole Foods has asked to carry it.

“I remember what non-gluten free food tastes like,” said Heather Holmes, a paralegal studies student at Cal East Bay student who has been gluten-free for the past year. Mariposa’s food, she said, “tastes just as good so I don’t feel like I am sacrificing taste and quality.”

Holmes had stopped into the shop to pick up a bagel sandwich and a bag of gluten-free pretzels to take with her to class.  She said there would be pizza provided for the presentations that evening and Holmes knew she would not be able to have a slice. Her instructor had expressed his regrets, but Holmes said she was okay with bringing her own food. “If it’s here I can eat it,” said Holmes of the store.  “I don’t have to ask what’s in it, what are the ingredients. I can just know I can have it and enjoy it.”

In the future, Crane would like to have more lunch offerings to satisfy the requests from customers.  Whole Foods has taken note of her baguettes, and plans are in the works to stock them locally, said Crane.  Crane said this partnership may shift more of her bakery’s in-house work towards bread making.

Most of all, she said, her work is about building community and making sure gluten-free eaters don’t have to miss out. “I think that’s why people work in food—because it’s a fun and rewarding experience,” said Crane.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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