'Tartine Bread': A San Francisco Bakery Reveals Its Secrets

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Samuel Fromartz


When you ask about great bakeries in the Bay Area, one place people always mention is Tartine. The bakery makes naturally leavened bread and has the distinction of baking loaves in the late afternoon, so you can take one home right out of the oven for dinner. Or so I hear. Years ago I tried Chad Robertson's loaves when he up in Point Reyes. At the time, he had a wood-fired oven and had built a strong following (a friend took me there on a visit). In fact, a picture of him in front of the hearth with a pile of dark, crusty loaves graced the cover of a timeless baking classic, The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens.

Many years later, Robertson now has his own book, Tartine Bread . He writes:

During those early years in Point Reyes the small bakery was a laboratory for three ingredients and a world of possibility: flour, water, and coarse grey salt from the Guérande in southwest France. I made most discoveries by exhaustive trial and error, over time gathering each lesson into a simple approach based on what I had learned. The approach was not rigidly scientific, but results were documented by concise shorthand notes and photos of the bread on days when something notable was achieved in crust or crumb. After years of baking in Point Reyes, I made the loaf I was after.

In 2002, Chad and his wife, Liz—a pastry chef—made the move to the Mission district in San Francisco, where they opened Tartine. They baked croissants and quiches in the morning and bread in the afternoon. Although he had to trade the wood-fired oven for a gas-fired deck oven, he wasn't worried. "Any flavor imparted by the wood fire is imaginary," he writes in the book. I would tend to agree, although this is the kind of argument bakers could only settle with a blind tasting, and even then they would quibble with the results.

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In any case, this summer, Tartine Bread arrived in the mail—an event I had been eagerly awaiting because I was curious about these loaves: loose and airy, with a hint of natural leaven and without the acidity common to sourdough. Could it be done at home? After baking on-and-off with the book for a few weeks, I'd say yes, with a caveat. The results don't come quickly, and as with all true craft work, you must put in some time to get what you're after. But you will achieve generously airy breads (like the 70-percent whole-wheat loaf pictured above). Barely a month after the book appeared, home bakers produced some notable loaves with Robertson's recipes.

Robertson's main departure from standard practice comes with his natural leaven (I'm loathe to use the word sourdough, which is a misnomer, since this leaven is anything but sour). Unlike most leavens made with white flour, he uses 50 percent white and 50 percent whole-wheat flour. Normally, that would lead to an explosion of activity, since the minerals and bran in whole-wheat flour make for a very active starter that can be difficult to master.

But he tackles this problem by doing two things: first, mixing a large amount of leaven—400 grams total, or two to three cups—with just a tiny tablespoon of starter. Then he ferments it at a rather cool temperature to reduce its activity. The result is a mildly flavored leaven, which, when added to the dough, inoculates the mix with copious amounts of yeast but has very mild acidic notes. Shining through is the sweetness of the wheat, which is probably why San Franciscans line up to get their hands on this bread. Plus the loaves just look gorgeous, judging from the pictures in the book by Eric Wolfinger.

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Samuel Fromartz is a Washington-based writer focusing on food, the environment, and business. He is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew and is currently working on a book about bakers and bread.

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