SAN FRANCISCO >> Honeymoons: a chance to relax after the stress of a wedding by sitting on a beach with a cocktail and contemplating the start of a happy, married life.
Or, in my case, a chance to travel to America and meet a baker.
I am addicted to bread. Growing up in the United Kingdom — where the staple diet is laced with carbs and gluten – bread really is daily. And I am hooked.
In 2012, I went from avid consumer to obsessive creator thanks to a bread-making course at a cottage deep in the English countryside. Nights out with friends have been canceled, weekend trips away postponed, as I became a slave to sourdough.
So, while Fiji was at the top of my bride’s romantic getaway list, my mind went immediately to San Francisco. The Bay Area has a long history of making sourdough bread and it’s now home to a plethora of sourdough bakeries. I also dreamed of meeting Chad Robertson, the man behind the city’s highly acclaimed Tartine Bakery.
Fiji would have to wait. After our wedding, we embarked on a 5,300-mile trip to California. Despite jet lag, Kate and I headed straight to the city’s oldest sourdough producers, Boudin Bakery near Fisherman’s Wharf.
To make sourdough, flour and water are left to ferment for long enough that a natural leaven is created, allowing the baker to dispense with shop-bought yeast altogether. Legend, and Boudin’s onsite museum, trace the company’s mother dough, still used in each loaf, back to the California Gold Rush era.
The sheer scale of Boudin’s operation is impressive. But while there’s great pleasure in tearing the arm off a sourdough teddy bear, the scale is more industrial than artisanal with a flavor to match. This is not the dough I was looking for.
Next up, a trip to the Ferry Building Marketplace and an outpost of the Acme Bread Company. Founded in 1983, Acme is a major player in the city, providing bread to dozens of restaurants and grocery stores across the Bay Area. With a depth of flavor and a beautiful, blistered crust, the sourdough round I sampled was, to my palate, a step up from Boudin’s.
Stop three: Tartine Manufactory, a light, airy space in the Mission District where the tangy, welcoming smell of sourdough invades your senses as you enter. It’s bread nirvana.
As we arrived, the Manufactory was a hive of activity with Robertson, who is recognized as one of the world’s leading bakers, front and center, pulling crackling, burnished loaves from an enormous deck oven (a type of commercial oven with shelves) as his team buzzed around him.
While my short-suffering wife settled down with a beer and a grilled cheese-and-zucchini sandwich, I indulged myself, watching the process I’d pored over in Robertson’s 2010 book “Tartine Bread.” I’d arranged for a chat with him and started off by asking if my pilgrimage was unique.
“No, no. A lot of people come,” said the soft-spoken Texan with a smile. “I’m always just hoping it’s a good bread day when they show up! Every day there’s new people. People definitely come from all over and I love it. It’s pressure. I just always hope that we are living up to people’s expectations. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a constant challenge.”
With an estimated 3 million Americans suffering from celiac disease, one of Tartine’s other challenges is catering for the one in 133 people who are allergic to gluten.
However, as Robertson – whose wife, Tartine co-founder Elisabeth Prueitt, is gluten-intolerant – is quick to point out, there’s a difference between being a celiac and avoiding gluten as a lifestyle choice.
“Americans in particular are always trying to find a silver bullet – like ‘Oh this is the problem’ and they’ve found that that gluten intolerance is not the problem,” he says. “Gluten-free has as much junk food as regular conventional crackers.”
The economics of the gluten-free market aren’t lost on Robertson either: “It’s big business, so once the cereal companies see that this this a growing segment that they can produce food for, then it just keeps rolling on.”
Tartine is also teaming up with pizza guru Chris Bianco for a new venture in Los Angeles, with plans under way for a New York outlet too. It’s a long way from Robertson’s humble beginnings, spending years in front of a wood-fired oven in West Marin in “a solitary trance” trying to perfect his ideal bread.
As my baking hero headed back to his deck oven, I walked outside with a country loaf under my arm and immediately broke through its shattering crust to reveal the pearlescent, still warm crumb inside. It’s a revelation – moist and irresistible, with a complexity of flavor that changes daily during our remaining time in San Francisco.
It’s the sourdough that dreams, and honeymoons, are made of.