It's 5 p.m. and a lazy queue has begun to form at San Francisco's Tartine Bakery & Cafe. It resembles the line that forms each morning, when eager patrons wait for sugar-dusted morning buns, frangipane croissants, and thick slices of quiche. But in the afternoon, it's all about Chad Robertson's bread. Just before dinnertime, his deeply browned country loaves, considered by cognoscenti to be the best bread in the city, emerge from the oven, only to sell out almost immediately.
Robertson's road to the perfect loaf has been a long one. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he apprenticed with bakers in the United States and France before settling in California. Thirteen years ago, he opened his first bakery (with now-wife and pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt), in Point Reyes Station, California, a tiny seaside town an hour northwest of San Francisco. He rented a house, built a brick oven on the property, and then spent the next six years mastering his bread, which is made with a natural leaven rather than commercial yeast, giving the finished loaves a complex flavor. In 2002, he and Prueitt headed to San Francisco's Mission District to open Tartine Bakery & Cafe, where they've baked ever since.
Naturally fermented bread, which begins with a starter, is Robertson's signature loaf and the one that forms the basis of many of his recipes. After the advent of commercial yeast in the mid-19th century, artisanal bread in the United States was all but wiped out, only to be resurrected by intrepid bakers here and abroad in the 1980s and '90s. Although it takes more time to make (the starter must be fermented for about three weeks to develop the necessary flavor and volume), the results are unparalleled. Robertson believes that his style of bread -- with a thick, burnished crust and a moist interior shot through with holes -- is something everybody can create in their own ovens.
His latest cookbook, "Tartine Bread," from which the basic country bread recipe here is excerpted, demystifies the process for home bakers. While writing it, Robertson gave his recipe to a handful of friends to put his theory to the test. "I was actually astonished by the quality of the bread they made," he says. "It was every bit as good as what I make at the bakery."
Robertson notes that some professional bakers frown upon eating bread warm from the oven, before it has had time to cool and fully develop its flavors. But he's not immune to the joy of tearing into a freshly baked loaf. He often dunks the pieces into the bakery's house vinaigrette with shallots and herbs. But he recognizes that eating the bread immediately -- as many of his customers likely do, unable to resist the overwhelming scent of fresh bread -- is just one of countless possibilities. "Bread made with a natural leaven keeps for a week," he says. "There's fresh bread with jam, open-faced sandwiches made with day-old slices, bread salads, bread pudding, French toast. A loaf of bread can feed you for a long time." Once the bread is stale, Robertson repurposes it into croutons and breadcrumbs, both sweet and savory, which he sprinkles atop ice cream or folds into an omelet.
Although most bakers rise in the wee hours of the morning to bake, Robertson has adjusted the schedule in order to make time for his 3-year-old daughter, Archer, and to accommodate the pastry baking that dominates the bakery's deck ovens all morning. But baking in the afternoon has also allowed Robertson to pursue his other love, surfing. Most mornings before heading into the bakery, he spends some time in the frigid waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach. "As with baking, there's only so much you can control out in the water," Robertson says. "But when it's good, it's so good."
Photographs by Eric Wolfinger
Text by Jessica Battilana
Robertson shares his basic loaf and seven recipes in which it stars.
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