The fall and rise of San Francisco sourdough

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Chad Robertson of Tartine

During the California Gold Rush of 1849 it is said that the only people who made money were those selling the shovels.

But that is not quite true. A Frenchman named Isidore Boudin did pretty well too.

Boudin came from a family of master bakers in Burgundy, France.

On arrival in San Francisco, where like everyone else he hoped to make his fortune, Boudin opened a bakery. Rather than make ordinary bread, he took inspiration from the sourdough favoured by miners and blended it with traditional French techniques.

The result became known as San Francisco sourdough, a bread with a complex tangy taste, a soft air-pocket filled inner texture, and a delicious thick crispy crust.

After a few years in the culinary wilderness, San Francisco sourdough is now going through a huge resurgence in popularity.

Supermarkets and bakeries prioritise sourdough on their shelves. Instagram is flooded with artfully filtered shots of craggy sourdough insides. Amazon stocks countless books with titles like “Artisan Sourdough Made Simple”, “Do Sourdough: Slow Bread for Busy Lives”, and “The Sourdough School: The Ground-Breaking Guide To Making Gut-Friendly Bread.”

Part of this revival is driven by a desire to eat something perceived to be authentic, and unsullied by modern food manufacturing processes.

And the making of artisan bread is a welcome reprieve for a generation raised on screens, who want to do something meaningful with their hands.

Boudin’s Bakery still makes fresh sourdough every day using the same mother dough cultivated 170 years ago.

But the real sourdough aficionados prefer Tartine, a bakery in the heart of the Mission District of San Francisco, founded by Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt in 2002. They make what the food writer Michael Pollan calls “the best bread I ever tasted.”

“With these grains, we’re building on the tradition, and it’s exciting.” Robertson explains.

And it is quite a tradition. The origins of Sourdough bread date back thousands of years to early human civilisations in the Fertile Crescent.

Now it is back in a big way. It turns out that the best thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread.

A version of this article was also published as part of a weekly column in the Lancashire Post, Lancaster Guardian and Blackpool Gazette.

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