Beware of the Model Bakery and its English muffin. It's an item so delicious that it could make you move to St. Helena, California, or fall in love with the baker...or start a territorial war over the last one left. Quite literally it's an English muffin you would change your life for; it will make you think: if only I could live in a place where this extraordinary muffin is available every day. I'm a city girl through and through but that bakery and its English muffin made me rethink that, foodie that I am...it induced a level of passion practically unmatched by any other baked good in the history of my life. Let's just call it perfection. It has got a very satisfying crunch on the outside, and it's dense yet airy on the inside. While officially it is an English muffin, it is reminiscent of a donut with its buttery texture balance, its crispy-when-toasted chewing epiphany, and its donut-like, enticing aroma.
Owner Karen Mitchell and her team developed these perfect muffins some years back and they are legendary in St. Helena as well as all over the country, where they are shipped. They bake around 1500 a day and they are typically gone by noon. They are in such demand that there is a limit of six per person unless you preorder, and I do: they are the first thing I buy when I arrive in St. Helena, and the last thing I buy when I'm leaving. These beauties are made by hand on the stove, proofed on one side and grilled. Karen says the best way to split them is to split your way through with a table fork to take advantage of all the nooks and crannies. Here is my advice: toast well with butter and serve with raspberry jam, which complements it perfectly. Would it surprise you at all to know that when we order them, we like to get our pats of butter open and ready and warmed a bit with our hands so that the moment we get the muffin we're ready to slide the butter on and let it begin to melt? It is a food item so spectacular that you think about it long after you've eaten it, and anticipate the possibility of when you can have it again. It's totally worth a food field trip.
I love the camaraderie that the Model Bakery naturally creates. Family owned bakeries have historically been part of the hub of a small town. The Model Bakery is a bakery that you want to share your life with: there will be something from the bakery on your table for birthdays and graduations, but they are there for the sad times too. It's a place local people and visitors go at any time of day to relax for a moment, eat delicious food, and stop to savor life. They open as early as 6:30 a.m. and are humming for 12 hours. It is a business and social hub, and is essentially what "community" is all about. You see laborers and construction workers, mothers bringing their babies for a treat, vacationers having no idea how they got so lucky to find this place. There is nothing like a small-town bakery, and when that bakery also happens to have exceptional food, it is pretty miraculous.
The structure itself has been there for 100 years as a bakery and has changed hands several times, operating under several different names. Thirty years ago, Karen Mitchell, a then local caterer and foodie, along with her husband John, took over the bakery. They were playing with various names when an older gentleman came by and said, "Oh, the Model Bakery!" When they were told this had been its name in the '20s, they restored it. They still have the original amazing giant ovens, which, when Karen took over, she had no idea how to work. They are 18 feet wide, 14 feet deep, and 16 inches high. It was incredibly challenging, and very unlike a newly built facility, to figure out the right oven temperature and coordinate baking the products which are all cooked with different levels of not just heat but moisture. Clearly they mastered the art, and the history of the 100 year old oven is baked into every item they sell from their lovingly renovated and modernized storefront shop, which is the best of both worlds.
As they needed more space they opened a second location near the Oxbow Market and decided to divide and conquer. Currently, the majority of the breads are made at the Napa location and the morning pastries, cookies, cakes and other items are made in St. Helena. In addition to the 1500 English muffins, they also sell 600 cookies a day, along with the morning pastries, muffins, cupcakes, croissants, and an assortment of truly delicious daily salads, tartines, pizza and sandwiches.
Some other well loved items are iced cookies, chocolate rads, and iced cinnamon rolls. Like Woodhouse Chocolate, it is a family business, with Karen's daughter Sarah managing the Napa location. Although they are certainly not a gluten-free facility, they haven't forgotten those of us who are, so they bake gluten-free cupcakes, muffins and cookies daily, as well as a spelt version of the English muffin.
The Model Bakery has my highest recommendation for a food field trip, but you might want to consider packing the moving truck in advance, because their English muffin will make you re-think your entire existence.
Teri Turner is ReadSource's contributing food expert. Follow her on Instagram here: @nocrumbsleft for more delicious recipes and photographs sure to make your mouth water. Have a question or just want to say hello? Email Teri Teri@nocrumbsleft.net.