Friday, December 4, 2009

Tartine Bakery & Cafe

The first time I tasted Chad Robertson’s bread I was blown away. Back then; I wasn’t experienced in bread baking or even bread tasting. Even so, there was no mistaking it—this was a perfect, handcrafted loaf of bread. The man is an artist!

That first experience was with a hunk of sourdough that had just the right amount of sour with a perfectly gorgeous crust and an amazingly moist texture. I’ve been Chad devotee ever since.
I first met him when he was at his Point Reyes bakery which is now run by Celine Underwood of Brick Maiden Breads. Chad and his wife Elizabeth have moved on and now own Tartine Bakery and Café, as well as Bar Tartine in San Francisco. Since the day Tartine opened people have been lining up outside the shop. Chad and Elizabeth sell an incredible array of baked goods, both savory and sweet, as well as their famous hot pressed sandwiches. One of these sandwiches, which are made with Tartine’s bread, of course, is big enough for two people. Their Three-Cheese Tasting sandwich made with Bellwether Farms Jersey Carmody, Strauss Cheddar, and Rocinante Idiazabal is the most decadent and the best-grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had.

Tartine’s charmed existence has not been without a drawback or two. They bake their bread in the afternoons, which means that if you want buy fresh bread in the morning or at lunchtime, you are out of luck. Then too, you need to be in line at Tartine by 5 pm if you want to snag a loaf. So if you live nearby, you are in luck.

Chad would love to be able to sell fresh bread throughout the day, but it just isn’t possible. Space is limited in the bakery and he can’t sustain the business on bread alone. Given all the other considerations that go into running a successful business, baking in the afternoon is the only feasible solution. (Although Tartine is demanding, Chad is determined to have a life outside of the bakery, so he always makes time to surf in the mornings.)

I joined Chad on a Saturday to observe his bread making process and to discover what it is about his method that makes his bread exceptional. Even though he no longer bakes in a wood oven as he did when he started, his bread remains exceptional. Chad now bakes in a gas deck oven, which has double steam generators, which are critical to his production. Just like Celine Underwood (see my previous blog) Chad uses a wet dough—something industrial machines cannot not handle. He also employs many a good many tricks that give his bread its unique qualities. For instance, he developed a special formula for his dough—a secret blend of flours all specifically hydrated. He also heats up his deck oven, then turns it off before putting the bread in so he is essentially baking with stored heat. This is the same technique he used when he was working with a wood fired oven. He simply translated the method to his gas deck oven.

Visiting Chad was one more lesson about the long, hard road I will have to travel to turn my dream of baking bread into a profitable business. But, as in my previous stops along the artisanal bread route, I also witnessed the thrill of turning out a perfect loaf. I will continue my journey until I find my place in the bread-baking world.

PS.  Chad's new bread book will be out next year.


Blogger porrothecat said...

Wow, I am so happy to have found your blog. I'm a home bread baker who desperately wants to find a way to make a living baking bread and I know I will enjoy keeping up with your progress.

Tartine's bread is my all time favorite. I remember a huge grin spreading across my face when I had my first bite. Thanks so much for this glimpse of their process. I can't wait for that book!

January 24, 2010 at 2:22 PM  

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