A couple of months ago Maedi emailed me and asked if I would be interested in writing up a paragraph or two on a few of the bakeries in here in Northern California.
Since the immediate area I live in lacks what I would call authentic artisan bakeries, I decided to travel to the San Francisco area in order to sample a couple of local bakeries there. Also, with my interest in sourdough bread turning into a bit of a passion in the last two years, I’ve wanted to make a trip to San Francisco to see how the bread I bake at home compares to some of the best. Americans tend to think of San Francisco as the birthplace of sourdough and it certainly has the reputation of having some of the best sourdough to be had anywhere. Fortunately, I only live about 3-4 hours from the San Francisco area. I would have made the trip much sooner but I tend to avoid big cities unless I have a darn good reason to go to one. Maedi’s request was just the motivation I needed to finally get me to make that drive.
When trying to select which of the many bakeries I wanted to visit, my plan was to stay away from the big commercial bakeries’ and if possible, find one with a wood fired oven.
I found my first choice, “Tartine Bakery”, sometime back while searching YouTube for bakery videos. There is a great video that features Chad Robertson, owner and founder of this bakery talking about the evolution of his bread baking skills and the bakery. It can also be seen through the Tartine Bakery web site
Also, I had recently started reading “The Bread Builders” to learn about building a brick oven and more about baking sourdough bread. While reading about some of the bakers featured in the book, I learned that Chad is regarded, by some, as one of the best bread bakers in America. The video alone peaked my interest but his reputation made Tartine Bakery a must see!
My second choice was a little tougher; I really wanted to find that small bakery with a wood fired oven. Fortunately I was able to find such a bakery. One look at Wild Flour Bread’s web site and I knew I had to pay a visit. http://www.wildflourbread.com/  “Wild Flour Bread” is located just outside of Sebastopol, Ca. in Freestone Valley, some 50 miles north of San Francisco. Since I would be coming from even further north, a stop at Wild Flour Bread seemed doable.
Before I made the drive to the “Bay Area” I thought I had better be sure of the hours of operation for these bakeries so I could be certain to get some bread to sample. As it turns out, Tartine Bakery puts out their finished loaves Tuesdays through Sundays after 5:00 pm and they sell out regularly. I didn’t plan on being in the city that late in the day so that meant I needed to try to reserve a loaf to pick up when I planned to be there. I learned this is only possible with a three day advanced notice at Tartine! I placed my order for a loaf of “Country Tartine” to be baked the following Friday and picked up Saturday.
Next I called Wild Flour Bread to find out what issues I might have when I visited there. I was told that they open at 8:30 am and sell bread throughout the day. Although lines do form, I was told that the wait is usually short. I was also informed that mornings were less busy than afternoons.
With everything arranged, my wife and I planned on leaving early enough to make it to Wild flour Bread shortly after they opened, then drive on to San Francisco to pick up our bread at Tartine Bakery some time around noon. After that we could spend some more time in the city before heading back home.
Leaving before daylight on Saturday morning, we arrived at Wild Flour Bakery just after 9:00 am. Pulling up on the small bakery it was easy to see that business was already steady. Walking up to the building I noticed the wonderful smell of bread baking with a hint of garlic in the air. Once inside we were greeted with the scene of a busy working bakery. At least three people were working the counter helping customers while several more worked behind them in the bakery working dough and tending that great looking brick oven! I took just a few minutes to make it up to the counter. But then, what to order? We were faced with choice of more than a dozen types of bread. We decided to keep it simple and just order one loaf each of their “Wonder” all white and “Wild Flour” signature all wheat. Then we spotted the scones! Again, which one? They offered five kinds but two, were already sold out. We decided on the “Peach, Pecan and Chipotle”. Once outside we quickly broke into the scone. All I can say is wow! The scone had a perfect blend of flavors. The peach flavor was obvious with generous bits of peaches throughout. But then, the chipotle kicks in with just a bit of heat. It was really good! Before we knew it we were back inside to get some of the other scones we picked up one each of the “Apple, Walnut & Raisin” and Chocolate, Orange, Almond with White Chocolate. Oh, and one more of the Peach.
While in the second time I asked the lady helping us if I could take some pictures and explained about writing about my visit on the blog. She said that I could take all the photos I wanted and quickly motioned to the owner, Jed Wallach. Jed started Wild Flour Bread some 12 years ago. Prior to that Jed had actually worked with Chad Robertson at Chad’s earlier bakery, “Bay Village Bakery” in Point Reyes Station, some 35 miles to the south west of Freestone Valley. Both men had spent time baking with and learning from Alan Scott co-author of “The Bread Builders” and builder of hundreds of brick bread ovens including the one at Wild Flour Bread and Chad’s Bay Village Bakery!
I only had a chance to briefly tell Jed about the blog, Companion Bakery and what I was up to. I mentioned that Companion Bakery had a web cam so everyone could watch along anytime. I suggested that he might want to add one to Wild Flour Bread. Jed just laughed and said, “Not with the way I show up for work some mornings or the middle of the night!” With that I quickly said thanks and allowed the man to get back to work. I would have loved to ask a thousand questions about the bakery and especially the brick oven. It felt pretty good to just be able to see it all in action and to take it all in. Very cool!
Everything we purchased at Wild Flour Bread was still warm and fresh when we carried it off to the car. Although we decided to wait until we were home to cut into our loaves, we had been treated to samples inside the bakery. Both the Wild Flour and Wonder had firmer crumb than I was used to from my bread, but they had a definite sour flavor that can be elusive to home bakers, at least mine at times!
In addition to the bakery itself, we walked through the garden just outside of the bakery. It was wonderfully laid out with small foot paths to follow through. In addition to baking, I could certainly learn a thing or two about gardening at this bakery!
After a very enjoyable visit to Wild Flour Bread, we were back on the road to San Francisco and Tartine Bakery. Traffic was fairly light, even for San Francisco.
Thanks to our little GPS unit we arrived at Tartine Bakery in just under an hour. Arriving was just the beginning of the fun! Several minutes later and a few passes by the bakery in search of parking, we found a space 4 blocks away! A few more minutes and we had made it to the front of the bakery. First thing you notice is the line stretching out the door and down the front of the bakery.
It was getting on closer to lunch time and you could tell this is a popular place! Fortunately, I had pre-ordered and paid for my bread. This meant we didn’t have to wait in line. Unless of course we wanted to sample any of the other items the bakery had to offer. As we worked our way into the crowded bakery I looked for something that would indicate where I could pick up our bread. All the while I was trying to snap some pictures of the bakery. Finally my wife grabbed the attention of a young lady behind a counter and told her we had come to pick up some bread. She quickly told us that bread is not available until after 5:00 pm before I explained that we had pre-ordered. Soon enough, we had our bagged loaf and were making our way to the outside. One thing I did notice was the lack of any of the scents you would expect from being in a bakery. It was a stark contrast from where we had been earlier. The place was packed with people all either waiting to order or eating their meals. Tartine serves sandwiches as well as pastries. We never were able to get close enough to see just what all they had to offer though. Once back in front the bakery we had to choose if we wanted to hop in line and wait or look elsewhere for lunch. Having read some reviews on-line I knew that if the line stretched in front of the bakery that you could expect to wait at least 30 minutes to make it up to the counter. If you ordered a sandwich you could expect to wait at least another 20 minutes or more for it to arrive. We opted to take our bread and hike back to where we left the car. In fairness to Tartine Bakery, we knew to expect a long wait because of its popularity and had already decided to try another eatery a couple miles away. I had really come for the bread and had that in hand.
So what about the bread? Well, if you watch the video that I linked above, you can see that Chad bakes his loaves to a dark color. He talks about the crust coloring beautifully because of the sugars caramelizing from the long rise time the loaves get. Unfortunately my bread was either baked to the point of being burnt or I don’t appreciate the flavor Chad is going for. I’m going with burned crust! At least it was in my point of view and taste. Once I got past that and looked at and tasted the crumb I was a little happier. The crumb had lots of holes like I would expect to see in a loaf of ciabatta bread. The flavor was a very strong sour tang. It no doubt took a good deal of time for Chad to develop his “Country Tartine” and it’s obviously very popular but I couldn’t get past what I took for a burnt crust. I’ll have to assume that it’s usually better and that maybe I just got a bad loaf.
All things considered, my wife and I had a great time. I will for sure make the trip back to Wild Flour Bread! The experience there with the people and the aromas of a bakery with a wood fires oven is something I really enjoyed. Perhaps I will get the chance to talk more with Jed Wallach about his Allen Scott oven. I would even like to try Tartine Bakery again if I’m every there when the bread is coming out of the oven. I might have a better chance of picking a lighter one!