No matter how you slice it, good bread has made a comeback.
Paris, 1999. A team of flour-dusted American bakers surrounded by mounds of dense, crusty, hand-formed loaves had labored long and hard in the Olympics of bread baking, the contest for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. The team was hoping for a spot in the top three. No one, they were convinced, could beat the French.
Thomas Gumpel, a baking instructor for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena, Calif.; Jan Schat, head baker for the restaurant chain Il Fornaio; Robert Jörin, an instructor at the CIA; and team coach Craig Ponsford, owner of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, were as surprised as anyone when they walked away with the trophy—and thrilled to show the world that America's bread, just like America's wine, had arrived. All four were from the San Francisco Bay Area. Coincidence? Maybe—or maybe not.
In the early 20th century, most Americans lost their access to good handmade bread. Like many traditional foods, bread fell victim to the industrial revolution. Wheat germ gummed up the fast new flour mills. The solution was to extract the germ in advance, along with nutrients and much of the flavor. To speed up fermentation, industrial bakers added sugar to the dough, which made it absorb more water, creating a sweet, squishy balloon bread. There were exceptions, of course. Bakers in small ethnic communities continued their traditional craft.
And there was San Francisco. Gateway to the Gold Rush, home of Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco hung on to its sourdough bread.
When people went to San Francisco, they would always say, 'They have this great bread there,' " notes Michael Wild, originally from Los Angeles and today owner of the 26-year-old nationally acclaimed restaurant Bay Wolf in Oakland. The scruffy Gold Rush bakers earned their epithet "sourdoughs" for good reason. They made long-fermented, tangy bread using a "mother," or "starter," saved from a previous batch of dough. To this they added flour, salt, water, and patience. A good sourdough took as long as 12 hours to rise and develop its flavor.
They did not know why the starter worked or why the bread tasted the way it did. Decades later scientists and bakers discovered that sourdough starter contains two microorganisms, a yeast and a bacterium, or lactobacillus, living in symbiosis. Wild yeasts, naturally present in the air, thrive in the acid environment created by a lactobacillus. San Francisco's natural starter was named Lacto-bacillus sanfrancisco.
Though sourdough is hardly unique to San Francisco—it has a 5,000-year history dating back to Egypt and the pharaohs—it is part of the San Francisco experience. Large Bay Area bakeries like Parisian, Toscana, and Colombo have expanded and bought up most of the small, neighborhood operations. Today the three form the San Francisco French Bread Company, which produces more than 2 million loaves weekly. Meanwhile, Boudin, whose starter allegedly dates back to 1849, now has a string of cafés and bakeries throughout California and Chicago that feature its products.
Bread lovers insist that today's industrial-strength sourdough is a lesser product, but it still shows up on the tables of the city's steak houses and seafood joints. With its sharp tang and chewy crust, it has become the signature taste of San Francisco. Tourists grab a loaf at the airport to take that flavor home to family and friends.
"I was eating that Colombo bread as a kid," says Ponsford of Artisan. "Maybe Steve Sullivan was eating it too."
Sullivan, a busboy at the renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1978, took a vacation to Europe and had a life-changing experience. Reading Elizabeth David's newly published English Bread and Yeast Cookery, he was bitten by the bread bug—bread as it was baked until the mid-19th century, when bakers used only flour, water, salt, and yeast to make slow-rising, hand-formed loaves with a crisp crust and a chewy internal texture. Essential for a rich, wheaty flavor was the slow rise of whole-grain flour with its precious germ and bran intact.
When Sullivan returned home, Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters asked him to bake bread for the restaurant. Five years later, it had become clear that the community was hungry for handmade, crusty, European-style bread, baked directly on a hearth. With financial assistance from Waters, as well as from relatives, friends, and much of the Bay Area's food community, Sullivan launched the Acme Bread Company in Berkeley. Its consistent quality still serves as a beacon to bakers all over the country. Long lines of shoppers snake out the door at Acme's bakery. They come for Sullivan's pain au levain, a long-fermented, large-crumbed bread with a sour note and a rich, dark crust; a walnut-loaded version of levain that makes a heavenly crisp toast; Italian bread; and New York rye—all of them excellent. Each sets the standard for its type.
Meanwhile, other bakers in the area began producing fine breads. In 1984, Semifreddi's started selling four types of hand-shaped sourdoughs. By 1997, it was selling 35 different products. Grace Baking opened a single store in 1987 and now has four offering more than 50 types of breads and pastries. Two years later, Metropolis Baking Company fired up its ovens and now makes 63 different products from 13 basic doughs.
Sullivan views the return of old-fashioned bread as an idea whose time has come. Wherever there is a dynamic food scene, people want good bread. In the '70s, that scene was hardly limited to the Bay Area. Ponsford and Greg Mistell, owner of Portland's Pearl Bakery and former executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, agree that New York and the Pacific Northwest also contributed to the return of artisan bread.
"New York's many immigrants brought Old World recipes for baking bread," Mistell says. He also points to the health food movement in the Northwest, particularly Seattle. "The hippies there," he says, "were interested in healthy, dense multigrain breads and started European hearth-oven bakeries."
Soon the presence of more and more bread with real crust and a substantial interior was driving up the quality of bread in general. La Brea Bakery of Los Angeles and Grace Baking, for example, developed a line of flash-frozen breads for in-store baking. It's no longer artisan, says Darrell Corti, owner of gourmet grocery Corti Brothers in Sacramento. "But," he adds, "it's still a terrific product."
Today the variety of textures and flavors available in breads is astonishing. Between the artisan and just plain good products, shoppers can choose regional Italian styles (Pugliese, ciabatta, focaccia); classic French breads; seeded baguettes; olive, cheese, herb, and pepper breads; multigrains; potato breads; and, of course, sourdough as it was once made at the best of San Francisco's bakeries. You have to lay out a little more dough, if you will, for these handmade treasures than for the old airy wonder—bread untouched by human hands. But compare $2.50 for a great loaf to $20 for a good bottle of wine—or even $8 for a wedge of finely crafted cheese. It's as if the bread Olympics have been taking place in the West every day.
Get a Loaf of This
Acme Bread Company, 1601 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 524-1327. Artisan Bakers, 1139 Magnolia, Larkspur, (415) 461-7343, or 750 W. Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 939-1765, www.artisanbakers.com.
La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 939-6813, www.labreabakery.com.
Schats Bakkerij, 1353 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, (707) 942-0777.
Delphina's Bakery, 4636 NE 42nd St., Portland, (503) 221-1829, www.delphinas.com.
Metropol, 2538 Willamette St., Eugene, (541) 465-4730, or 296 E. Fifth St. Market, Eugene, (541) 687-9370.
Pearl, 102 NW Ninth Ave., Portland, (503) 827-0910, www.pearlbakery.com.
Vosen's Bread Paradise, 249 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City, (801) 322-2424, www.vosen.com.
WH Brumby, 224 S. 1300 East, Salt Lake City, (801) 581-0888
IDAHO Stanley Baking Company, Wall Street, Stanley, (208) 774-2981.
Photography courtesy of Stacy/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.