"I want to work with my hands"

22.October 2010

Todd Oppenheimer, who won a National Magazine Award for public-interest reporting, is the author of The Flickering Mind: Saving Edu­cation from the False Promise of Technology.

Breaking bread

In a city built on sourdough, Chad Robertson is reinventing local baking traditions to make what many consider the best bread in the world—one extraordinary loaf at a time.



It’s 5:45 in the afternoon. As usual, the line is out the door at Tartine Bakery, a café in the heart of “the Gastro,” as the cuisine-obsessed blocks around this corner of the Mission, at 18th and Guerrero, have been called. The day’s bread, which started coming out of the oven less than an hour ago, is already sold out. People are pissed.

Back in the kitchen, Chad Robertson, Tartine’s cofounder and lead breadmaker, is shutting down the massive, four-deck oven. He regrets that so many customers leave disappointed, but not so much that he’s willing to change his ways. While other bakeries produce dozens of bread varieties—ciabatta, focaccia, pain de mie, brioche, and more—Robertson concentrates on one: his signature country loaf, with variety achieved simply by folding in different flavorings (walnuts, olives, sesame seeds). He’ll be the first to tell you that the roughly 175 loaves he bakes each day, a mere asterisk by most commercial standards, are not a viable business model. Tartine’s sandwiches, along with the cakes, cookies, and croissants produced by the bakery’s pastry chefs, keep the lights on here. But bread is Robertson’s passion, and the kitchen is his workshop—the place where his intellectual curiosities intersect with flour, water, and salt.

In 2007, Mark Bittman, the popular New York Times food writer, called Tartine his “favorite bakery in the United States.” The next year, Robertson and his wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, shared the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. A year after that, Peter Reinhart, the dean of American bread writers, published Artisan Breads Every Day, which describes his first encounter with Tartine’s country loaf this way: “I thought I’d tasted good-as-it-gets bread before, but this was a time-stopper. It instantly became my single favorite bread in the world.”

All this acclaim has attracted several expansion offers, complete with funding. Robertson has turned them down, mostly because he knows he can’t clone Tartine without cloning himself. (Although the bakery is amply staffed—it now employs 55 people—Robertson is there, baking bread, almost every day.) More important, he points out, “we have a lot of ideas. None of them include recreating what we’ve already done.”

Those ideas revolve around what has always driven Robertson: finding ever richer flavors in a simple loaf of bread. He’s spent years trying to make a baguette that matches the one in his imagination. Even though his country loaf is now considered one of the best in the world, Robertson wants even more flavor. “I have to go really deep to find what I’m looking for,” he tells me. “I have to be pretty obsessive about it.”

On the surface, Robertson—an avid surfer and, at 39, lean as a snake—is extremely calm and easy-going. But when he’s not at the bakery, he can seem preoccupied and is often unable to talk about anything other than bread for very long. Sometimes he doesn’t thoroughly calm down until he has dough in his hands, at which point he finds it difficult to talk. “When I’m shaping,” he says, “I just like to be with the bread.”

Thus far, Robertson’s obsessions have already turned up enough new ground to redefine popular conceptions of artisan bread. While following his fanatical nose, he has also stumbled on hidden truths behind some very popular culinary myths, especially concerning the nature and virtues of sourdough.

Little defines San Francisco’s foggy spirit more viscerally than its sourdough bread. Those tangy white loaves are the signature of the city’s earl­iest days—the offspring of San Francisco’s original ’49ers, those scruffy miners of the gold rush, who, for lack of manufactured yeast, ate bread made with a starter that they kept alive in a dank corner of their stream­side tents.

Countless Bay Area bakeries have arisen from this hardscrabble past. French immigrants were the first to commercialize the miners’ coarse tastes, founding Boudin Bakery in 1849. Other bakers from both France and Italy soon joined the trend, giving birth to such memorable names as Parisian, Toscana, Royal, Colombo, Bordenave (still in operation in San Raf­ael), and, most mournfully, Larrabaru. The source of the city’s beloved Dark Bake and Extra Sour loaves, which looked like overweight baguettes, Larrabaru closed in 1976—famously bankrupted, or so the story goes, by a fatal delivery-truck accident and the ensuing lawsuit. (Actually, Larrabaru’s insurers covered the lawsuit; the bakery died from poor management, close observers of the bankruptcy say.)

By the latter half of the 20th century, though, the quality of bread in the Bay Area and across the world had begun a steep decline—a result of using industrialized white flour and excessive doses of instant yeast (the latter causes dough to rise artifici­ally quickly, which robs bread of the flavors brought about by natural fermention). Then, in the late 1970s, a busboy at Chez Panisse named Steve Sullivan—under the spell of the new gourmet-food movement propelled by his boss, Alice Waters—began baking bread for the restaurant. In 1983, using a handmade starter, Sullivan hatched his own bakery: Acme Bread Company. Acme’s success inspired the creation of more bakeries in the Bay Area and beyond, and America’s artisan-bread movement took off.

Sourdough, it turns out, is mostly a term of art. Technically, it describes all manner of naturally leavened breads—that is, any bread that achieves its rise with natural fermentation, from a sourdough starter, rather than with instant yeast. In the retail world, breads called sourdough are those that have a more intense sour flavor. San Francisco’s version is one of the genre’s most extreme examples—and not a ter­ribly well respected one. “As far as my international friends are concerned, sourdough is a mistake,” Craig Ponsford, chairman of the board for the Bread Bakers Guild of America, told me. “It’s an overfermented bread, where you can’t taste the wheat.” Robertson basically agrees, as does Michel Suas, the renowned founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute. “To be sour is easy,” Suas says. “The skill of the baker is to create a natural leavening activity”—that is, with a sourdough starter—“and still get a mild flavor.”

So it is no surprise that Robertson, who apprenticed in bakeries in France for several years before coming to California, favors a sourdough rather different from that of local tradition. His bakery’s mainstay, ostensibly a French classic called pain de campagne (“country bread”), is actually uncommon in nearly every respect. Made with organic flour, the loaf is unusually large: a foot-long oval that weighs nearly three pounds. Its crust is hard but remarkably thin, baked to a dark shade of brown. When sliced (the bread is so squishy, it must be cut with a very sharp knife), the loaf opens into a moist lacework of bubbles and holes, like some bacterial spore field run amok. The interior, called the crumb, is more yellow than white or brown, with an insidious scent. Underneath the caramel roastiness common to most fresh bread is a mellow sourness, milder and more layered than what you’ll find in classic Bay Area breads. Then there’s the taste—so rich, it’s like a cross between bread, sponge cake, and tangy custard. “Exceptional,” the New York Times’ Bittman called it, “because it’s a slow-fermented yeast bread in a very French style that’s a welcome change from the [area’s] ubiquitous sourdough.”

The intricacies in Robertson’s bread seem to be a natural by-product of an intricate mind. The grandson of a West Texas custom-boot maker, Robertson initially wanted to be an architect. But his first-choice college rejected him, so he went looking for a transportable skill. That led him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Robertson and Prueitt met at CIA when the two were assigned to be kitchen partners, a fate of alphabetical order.

While he was still in school, Robertson would drive for more than an hour before dawn to apprentice with an unorthodox baker named Richard Bourdon, owner of the Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Bourdon had been trained as a classical musician, but he dropped it when he decided there was enough good French horn playing in the world but not enough good bread.

Bourdon taught Robertson a preindustrial French technique for baking that involves working with very wet dough. Loaves made with such a high percentage of water essentially boil as they bake, thoroughly cooking the flour. It’s Bourdon’s belief that grains should be soaked and enjoy a long fermentation before they’re baked (an idea he drew from the macrobiotic food movement). The process is thought to unlock the nutrition in whole grains that are otherwise indigestible. To prove his point, Bourdon used to offer this suggestion: “Try to cook a cup of rice in half a cup of water.”

However, wet dough is difficult to handle—it sticks to the baker’s hands, to the work surface, to almost everything in sight. But Bourdon never gave up on the idea, and neither did Robertson. When he opened his first bakery, Robertson developed his own wet dough. He had practical reasons for this: He couldn’t afford a mixer when he started out, and a soft dough, despite its dif­ficult nature, is much easier to hand-mix than a stiff one. Perhaps more important, the technique distinguished Robertson’s bread. “Chad pushes the envelope the farthest with fermentation and water content,” Suas told me. Robertson’s large-scale competitors couldn’t work with such superhydrated dough because of its delicacy.

The quality of bread rests on two variables beyond ingredients: time and temperature. A baker who knows how to juggle these will find that they afford considerable flexibility; otherwise, the smallest changes can wreak havoc. For example, heat nurtures the microflora (bacteria and yeasts) that give bread its creamy or floral flavors. But if the dough gets too warm or cools for too long a time, the bread can sour. All these flavors are essentially microbial poop and farts, since bread’s aromas come largely from the acids and gases that fermenting microorganisms excrete. Expert bakers, therefore, are basically bug ranchers, forever seeking balance in their herds.

In sourdough breads, these bugs first come to life in the starter, a fermenting mixture of flour and water that bakers rely on to give bread flavor, structure, and shelf life (without preservatives). Starters are mysterious brews and a little fussy, much like a baby. “They both burp. Both have a very strange smell coming out of them, and you have to get up and feed them,” Suas recently told one of his classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

Many bakeries boast starters that are decades old. Some are heirloom mixes handed down for generations; others, composed more recently, began with seductive ingredients like apples, raisins, and grapes. Acme Bread Company and La Brea Bakery, in Los Angeles, are famous for hatching their starters with grapes. While these starters may have smelled fruity at their inception, the grapes don’t really influence the character of the bread. Scientists have repeatedly found that once flour joins the mix, the bacteria developed in a starter will dominate any other organisms, including fruit bacteria.

Acme’s Sullivan acknowledges that his grapes don’t create any special flavors in his bread; nor does it make a major difference that he has kept his starter alive for the past 20 years. “It simply means that people have been paying attention to it in an unbroken way,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.” Robertson, too, has maintained his starter for 15 years, but only as a matter of convenience. If it were lost, he says, “it would throw a three-day kink into what I do, but that’s pretty much it.”

Robertson and Prueitt opened their first bakery, Bay Village Bread in Point Reyes Station, in 1995. Back then, Robertson made the bread alone, working through the night and chopping wood during the day to fuel his custom-made brick oven. Before long, he recalls, he was sleeping in shifts and “walking around in a daze.” Neighbors got used to seeing him pad across the street in his pajamas and furry slippers to buy groceries. “That wasn’t too bad,” he says. “Bakers’ pants kind of look like pajamas anyway.”

Most modern bakers keep relatively normal sleep schedules, thanks to innovative technologies such as the retarder—a fancy refrigerator that has variances for timing and humidity, thus delivering oven-ready dough at a baker’s convenience. Robertson couldn’t afford a retarder, so he improvised. Each night, he’d stack baskets of dough like Lincoln Logs in his yellow ’53 Chevy delivery van. “Then I’d roll down the windows,” he recalls. He got some sleep but not the flavor he was after.

The aromas Robertson had in mind had their roots in his first apprenticeship in France. The tubs of dough he encountered there emitted a rich, seductively sweet scent of fresh, newly moistened flour, but he could never understand why that smell was always gone—or quite muted—by the time the bread was baked. “I remember thinking, ‘How can I get that smell at the end? How can I take that back a few steps to capture those aromas?’” Robertson says. He soon discovered that if he used a “young” starter—meaning just a few hours after its most recent feeding—followed by a long fermentation, he’d net a twofer: more complex flavors in his bread and a better night’s rest.

Before long, Robertson also realized that he wouldn’t need to spend the rest of his career chopping wood, though for the time being he had no choice. While sharing flour purchases with Della Fattoria, a kindred bakery in Petaluma, he watched the bakers there stoke their ovens with eucalyptus, which was cheap and readily available in the late 1990s, when California foresters were trying to eradicate huge swaths of nonnative trees. As any aromatherapy aficionado knows, eucalyptus oil is powerful stuff. “It has the most noxious sap, and it makes all this black smoke,” Robertson recalls. Yet Della Fattoria’s bread remained free of any eucalyptus scent.

The experience taught Robertson a curious lesson: Smoky flavors may penetrate foods such as pizza and steaks when they’re cooked adjacent to burning wood. But when bread is baked in a wood-fired oven, the fuel either burns in an entirely separate chamber, or else the coals are swept out before baking, so the loaves remain free of any smoky flavor. It would be years before Robertson could finally abandon his wood-fired oven, but he just smiled whenever suppliers came by hustling peach, almond, and other high-priced “boutique woods,” along with extravagant claims about their flavoring abilities.

By the early 2000s, demand for Robertson’s and Prueitt’s baked goods had drawn them toward city life—first in Mill Valley, where they baked in another wood-fired oven, then to San Francisco, after the dot-com bust made rents more affordable. When Tartine opened, with a modern gas oven, in 2002, Robertson found an untapped niche waiting for him in the city’s artisan-bread world.

To understand this market, it helps to have a working definition of what it means to be an artisan baker. Just hearing the word artisan conjures images of something special, made with loving handcraftsmanship. The term has enjoyed such runaway appeal recently that if anything from a loaf of bread to a hardwood chair is touched by human hands during production, its marketers are increasingly apt to label it “artisan.”

For their part, bread bakers are all over the map when it comes to that label. To Pascal Rigo, owner of the La Boulange chain, artisan means handmade, even if the product is lousy. “There are some good artisans and some bad,” he tells me. “That’s OK.” To Ponsford, who founded a bakery in Sonoma called Artisan Bakers, artisans are “masters of their medium”—superior manufacturers, even if their production is mechanized. “It’s completely OK by me if their hands aren’t involved,” he says. If you follow the slice of common ground shared by these and other bakers (which happens to get close to dictionary definitions), this is what being an artisan means: You make something of quality, with natural materials, and the touch of the hand somewhere in the process lends a value that machinery can’t. Since machine-made bread can easily look like it was made by hand, you might argue that true artisan breads—or at least the best ones—achieve exceptional, hand-wrought flavors.

By this standard, Robertson stands nearly alone now that so many of the Bay Area’s bakeries with artisan roots—Acme, Semifreddi’s, Boudin, and so on—have become production houses, turning out truckloads of bread with comparatively one-dimensional flavors. Of course, Robertson’s determination to continually push the flavor of his bread also means that he goes to work never knowing exactly what will happen.

“We walk such a fine line, our bread is on the brink of disaster every single day,” Eric Wolfinger, one of Robertson’s former apprentices and his surfing teacher, once told me. To avoid such disasters, Tartine’s bakers are trained to continually make tiny adjustments, from the moment they arrive in the morning, smell the condition of their starters, and decide when to mix.

Despite these complexities, Robertson is convinced that anyone can bake bread that comes very close to being on par with his own. His new book, Tartine Bread (with photographs by Wol­finger), makes this very case with a detailed recipe based on his country loaf. To prove his point, Robertson sent the recipe to a few test bakers. Judging from anecdotal reports and some photographs, many of them baked bread that looked nearly as good as his on their first attempts.

Bread followers will undoubtedly notice a striking similarity between Robertson’s recipe and another, called “no-knead bread,” that was popularized in the New York Times in 2006 by Robertson’s fan Bittman. Based on techniques practiced by James Lahey, of Manhattan’s Sullivan Street Bakery, the no-knead recipe set a fire in the world of home baking. Former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl bakes it several times a week, as does Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten.

As a mark of our culinary evolution, the two bakers’ approaches are worth a moment’s comparison. Both Lahey and Robertson call for a very wet dough, advise letting it ferment for an extended period (Robertson’s rising is just 8 hours, compared with the 20 hours that Lahey recommends), and suggest baking the bread inside a cast-iron pot—the key to getting a crisp, professional-quality crust in a home oven. But while Lahey calls for instant yeast, Robertson tells readers how to make and use their own sourdough starters, finding sourdough’s added flavor and shelf life to be worth the trouble. And while Lahey eliminates kneading and calls for only a minimum of handling, Robertson describes how to strengthen the dough by turning it several times while it rises. This technique not only aids the dough’s rise, but also helps contain its flavoring gases.

As it happens, Lahey uses a sourdough starter and sometimes employs a similar folding technique in his own bakery. So why didn’t he recommend them when he wrote his 2009 book, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method? “Once you say the word fold to someone who is just learning to bake, that’s open license to molest and hump,” Lahey says. “You really need to practice restraint.” As for sourdough starters, Lahey plans to recommend one in his next book on bread. In his first book, “I just wanted to teach people how to roll over on their backs before they attempt to crawl,” he says. For his part, Robertson wants to show that making and using a sourdough starter—as intimidating as it sounds—isn’t all that dif­ficult to do.

Robertson’s recipe may produce a superior loaf, but it will likely never have the popular appeal of Lahey’s. Robertson takes many pages to describe his method, providing every detail a home baker needs. Lahey’s instructions, on the other hand, have been condensed to the size of a newspaper clipping, even at the cost of quality.

If I want to understand how to handle dough without molest­ing it, Wolfinger suggests, I should watch Robertson shape his country loaves. “The dough is like an extension of his body,” Wolfinger says. “It dances in his hands and on the table.” This sounds like hype—but ultrasoft balls of dough (called boules) that would stick to an average baker move through Robertson’s hands with astonishing speed, from table to scale and back again, with only the slightest flip of his fingers. So, too, when he shapes the dough for the final time, pulling strands from the boules and crossing them back and forth to trap the air pockets that help create Tartine’s flavors and signature crumb. (Robertson’s skill with handling dough apparently comes from a lifetime of athleticism. As a teenager, he was a ranked tennis player.)

To my surprise, when Robertson sets the dough to rest again, laying out the moist boules on a wide board, he lets them slightly overlap one another. At this stage, he explains, the boules must lie next to each other to keep warm. It’s like watching over a litter of puppies. “If they stick together,” Robertson says, “it means they’re not comfortable enough yet to be on their own.”

In September, Robertson takes off for his fifth pilgrimage to France, determined to finally unlock the baguette’s subtle flavors. I’m lucky enough to go along for the ride. Hours after our arrival in Paris, staggering only slightly from jet lag, he stands outside one of the city’s most renowned bakeries, Eric Kayser, with his nose stuck in his third loaf of the morning. His eyes pop; he purrs like a kitten; then, while chewing away, he points repeatedly at the baguette’s interior. Porous, light brown, moist as cake, the bread bursts with the gentlest of flavors. It’s like burying your face in a field of spring wheat. “That’s what you’re tasting in those baguettes,” Robertson says. “The quality of that flour. It’s completely different from what we get back home.”

Later that week, Robertson travels to Sarzeau, a classic 19th-century postcard of a town in Brittany, on the western corner of France’s northern coast, to bake with his old mentor, Patrick LePort. Late one night, Robertson finds himself shaping baguettes for LePort, a renowned baker who helped pioneer the revival of France’s organic, nutritious baking methods.

The baguette dough is so soft, so moist, so delicate, that it looks like a puddle of porridge. Robertson’s thin fingers, which once aspired to architecture, try to shape the baguettes as gingerly as possible. He feels like he’s doing pretty well—until LePort rushes in. “That’s too tight,” the baker scolds. When the baguettes rise, he says, “they won’t go anywhere. You have to be gentle!” Robertson smiles at the rebuke, relishing how much he still has to learn.

Several days later, Robertson returns home with a deeper sense of how to coax undiscovered flavor out of grain, his head spinning with ideas for experimenting with his “pre-ferments”: baker’s parlance for the preliminary mixtures of different flours, water, and leaven. One of these days, Robertson is sure, he’ll perfectly capture that elusive “sweetness of the wheat.” But he feels less pressure now, because during his trip, he decided that French bread has no clear holy grail.

While most French loaves share remarkably consistent qual­ities (many leaning toward the bland), the various masters Robertson visited were each making adventurous breads. “They’re all trying something very different from each other,” he keeps saying. One of the most innovative was Christophe Vasseur, who runs a small shop somewhat like Tartine and bakes bread that tastes almost like burnt corn. In 2008, he was named the best baker in Paris by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. After looking at Robertson’s book, Vasseur guessed that the ingredients Robertson has access to in the Bay Area are of extremely high quality—an opinion that the San Francisco Baking Institute’s Suas shares. Vasseur also thought, judging from the book’s photos, that Robertson had honored baking traditions pretty well. “Authentique!” he said.

All of which frees Robertson to obsess about how to break new ground with an entirely different bread—one made with whole grains rather than the white flours that dominate his country loaf. His experiments in this direction are leading Robertson to one expansion effort that does interest him: a restaurant adjacent to Bar Tartine, the bistro that he and Prueitt currently operate on Valencia Street. The new place, which may open as early as next spring, will specialize in a range of artisan foods, such as house-cured meats that Rob­ertson hopes “will take sandwiches to the next level.”

The bread for those sandwiches will draw partly from trad­itions beyond Western Europe, which Robertson has already begun to explore with his own blend of pre-ferments, including several different sourdough starters. He is so captivated by the possibilities in this bread, which will come in several varieties, that he has commissioned Suas to custom-build a supercharged oven for the new restaurant. Bread will be available earlier, but don’t expect a sudden retail abundance: “We’re really baking for sandwiches,” Robertson says. “For lunch.”


The myth of the mother dough

Scientists take a close look at the real story of sourdough. 

Once upon a time, back in 1854, a tiny hamlet called San Francisco supported close to 60 bakeries. The oldest of them all, Boudin, is the only one of those that survives today.

In its solitude, Boudin sits on a pedestal: the lone keeper of a one-of-a-kind secret recipe—maintained via “time-honored methods,” according to its well-promoted backstory—that begins with a “mother dough” starter that has been “divided and replenished” daily for more than 50,000 straight days. This dough, Boudin proudly announces on every package of its bread, is “a unique combination of indigenous natural yeast and lactobacillus” that is “‘caught’ from the air” and can survive “only in our fog-cooled climate.”

Boudin’s marketing has been spectacularly successful. In 1975, when Boudin opened a bakery in Chicago—its first expan­sion outside the Bay Area—the Giraudo family (who bought the bakery from the Boudin family in 1941) got live television coverage from Charles Kuralt, plus a mention from Walter Cronkite, when it insured the mother dough for $1 million; put it in a metal strongbox; had it flown on the seat next to Lou Giraudo and his dad, Steve, the bakery’s owner; then had it delivered it to the new bakery in a Brink’s truck. To this day, Boudin sends replenished mother dough to its bakeries in Chicago, San Diego, and Disneyland every month—because the company believes that the dough loses its distinct flavor and leavening abilities within a few weeks.

Boudin’s story has legs. Bakers have long taken great pains to cultivate and guard their starters, believing that once they get a keeper, they must maintain it at all costs or else lose the magic.

Starting from the top, the myth­ology deconstructs in this way:

“Unique” starter dough…?
Not quite. Decades ago, a pair of biologists from the USDA studied sourdough starters, hoping to identify the unique properties of San Francisco sourdough. In 1971, they published a paper, which has since become famous, that isolated a new bacteria they named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. (The lead scientist even patented a dried version of the bacteria and sold it to Boudin, although the bakery owners say they never used it.) However, fermentation scientists have since detected L. sanfranciscensis all over the world. They’ve also discovered that any lone-ranger local organisms distinct to a dough aren’t terribly important to how the bread bakes or tastes. “Of course, bread has local flavors,” says Michael Gaenzle, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s department of agricultural, food, and nutritional science. “The bread in San Francisco is different from the bread in Edmondton, which is different from the bread in Finland, but they all contain virtually the same lactobacilli.” It’s the ingredients and the process used to make the bread, not the bacteria, that most influence a bread’s flavor.

Is an old starter better than a fresh one?

No—as sacrilegious as this sounds to bakers around the world, a perfectly good starter can be made from scratch within a week or two, using only flour and water. Students at the San Francisco Baking Institute do this all the time. But Boudin isn’t the only bakery to guard its starter. Acme Bread Company does, too, for tradition’s sake—and so does Chad Robertson, just to avoid the hassle of rebuilding one from scratch.

Are the bugs “‘caught’ from the air”?
Probably not. But L. sanfranciscensis’s origins are still under debate. Some scientists believe that the bacteria grow on grain. Others, such as Gaenzle, admit that the origins remain a mystery.

Do they survive “only in our fog-cooled climate”?
No. For bread, the main virtue of our climate is its comparatively mild and stable temperatures. Before the days of refrigeration, heating, and air-conditioning, this mattered. Today, any smart baker can duplicate our climate—at least for the purposes of breadmaking—by paying attention to room and dough temperatures. “If I make bread by the same process and use the same ingredients Boudin uses, anywhere in the world, it will taste the same,” says Craig Pons­ford, chairman of the board of the Bread Bakers Guild of America and a former business partner of Boudin’s.

How about those “time-honored methods”?
Even Lou Giraudo agrees that this is a bit of a stretch. Through the first half of Boudin’s history, after all, refrigeration—the key to modern baking—didn’t exist, so the company employed cold-storage techniques such as an uninsulated shed or a bucket of ice. Beyond this acknowledgment, however, Giraudo proudly rejects the food scientists’ analysis of the company’s claims. “I don’t give a good goddamn what other people say,” he told me. “You can make bread as sour as you want! It’s not San Francisco sourdough. It’s just that simple.” —T.O.

How to bake your own damn bread
If you’re not lucky enough to score one of the loaves of Robertson’s bread during the 45 minutes or so that they’re available each day, you can try making your own. In Tartine Bread, the baker gives a recipe for his basic country loaf. Spread over 28 pages and illus­trated with dozens of step-by-step photographs, the recipe looks daunting; but in fact, it’s clearly written and gives readers all the information they need to make artisan bread at home.

How to get the good grain
Petaluma-based Keith Giusto Bakery Supply is the local flour provider of choice for many top Bay Area bakeries, including Tartine, La Boulange, and Acme Bread Company. You’ll also find his flour at Whole Foods Market, under its 365 Organic brand, and at Safeway, under its O Organics label. But if you’re in Petaluma, Giusto will happily grind fresh whole wheat to order, using his tabletop stone mill. 755 South Point Blvd., Ste. 101, Peta­luma, 866-979-2253, centralmilling.com

How to learn from the masters
The San Francisco Baking Institute hosts one-week intensive courses throughout the year on subjects such as breads from around the world and baking with ancient grains, plus numerous classes on making sourdough and traditional French breads. 480 Grandview Dr., South S.F., 650-589-5784, sfbi.com