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.
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.