Bacano Bakery's Wonders Without Wheat

Laverne Matias turns to ancient grains for his wares.


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Laverne Matias gets creative with ancient grains and other gluten-free ingredients at his baker.

Photo courtesy of Bacano Bakery

Sorghum, millet, and teff have been grown for thousands of years and are eaten by millions of people in Africa, Asia, and India. Back in 2010, long-distance runner Laverne Matias had no idea he would eventually be spending his days baking hearty breads, luscious muffins, and decadent desserts with these ancient grains. His focus was on preparing to run the New York City Marathon. While researching ways to support his body nutritionally, he discovered the story of Novak Djkovic, the world’s No. 1 ranked tennis player, whose change to a wheat-free/gluten-free diet produced vastly improved performance on the court. Matias tried going gluten-free and noticed the difference immediately. He felt better, slept deeper, and achieved his goal: finishing the NYC marathon in under four hours.

Yet when Matias examined most gluten-free products on the market, he saw they were full of empty starches, such as rice and potato flours. His search for more nutrient-dense ingredients led him to teff, the world’s smallest grain, which packs a triple punch of iron, calcium, and protein, plus fiber and the eight essential amino acids. Teff is probably best known as the key ingredient in Ethiopian injera, the fermented, crepe-like flatbread that forms the basis of almost every Ethiopian meal.

Matias experimented blending teff and other ancient grains with seeds and nut meals and developed multigrain sandwich bread, cookies, and cupcakes. His friends kept asking him to bring his creations to parties and encouraged him to sell his wares at farmers markets. In 2014, after three successful years on that circuit, he opened Bacano Bakery, a bakery cafe in Emeryville where he makes more than 30 items in his gluten-free kitchen.

He gets much of his inspiration from customers’ specific requests. His deliciously satisfying Seeds of Joy bread, for example, a blend of teff, sorghum, and sweet rice flours sprinkled with fennel, caraway, chia, and coriander seeds, was created for a customer who could not digest any starches, including some of the mainstays of gluten-free baking: xanthan gum, tapioca flour, and potato starch. “That was a real challenge,” says Matias. “It took me almost a year to balance the flavors.” Even though the bread is vegan, dairy-free. and egg-free, the blend of flours and seeds gives it plenty of taste. “One of my customers—who isn’t vegetarian—says it goes great with pastrami,” he adds.

Matias found that sorghum, the dietary staple of more than 500 million people in 30 countries and an excellent source of iron, zinc and B-vitamins, works well as a wheat flour replacement, especially with its natural sweetness. But when a couple requested a gluten-free, grain-free wedding cake, Matias came up with his dairy-free, coconut rosemary cake, using coconut flour and coconut milk.

Having moved to California from his native Puerto Rico in 2000, Matias picked the name “Bacano” for his bakery because it’s Spanish slang for “very good” or “cool.” And the name fits with what comes out of his oven.

Bacano, 1298 65th St., Emeryville, 510-250-9751, www.Bacanobakery.com.

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