Ask any visitor to San Francisco what was the most distinctive local foodstuff they tasted during their stay and they are likely to reply “sourdough bread”. They may not have liked it because it is an acquired taste, but they will certainly have tried it, if only in the form of a bowl containing clam chowder or, for the more adventurous, the Bread Bowl Scrambler of eggs, bacon, cheddar, onions and bell peppers.
Isidore Boudin (pronounced “boo-Deen), member of a French immigrant family of master bakers from Burgundy, founded the bakery, making the “Original San Francisco Sourdough Bread” in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush. It remains one of the oldest businesses in the city and still bears his name, despite having been, for much of the last 70 years, in the ownership of the Giraudo family.
The original bakery, a tiny olde world affair, stood at 319 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in what was a raucous North Beach district during the Gold Rush. Its unique flavour comes from a wild yeast that is found only in San Francisco’s foggy climate, making it a truly local product. Indeed, in 1970, a Federal study isolated a previously unidentified microorganism named “Lactobacillus Sanfrancisco”, proving, as Jay Hansen claimed in his book, The Other Guide to San Francisco, that “you can take the sourdough out of San Francisco, but you can’t take the San Francisco out of the sourdough”. This would account for the fact that, although sourdough is becoming increasingly accessible in Farmer’s Markets in the UK, it tastes nothing like the “real thing”.
Boudin perfected his recipe by combining his family’s traditional French baking methods with the “sour” or tangy dough taste beloved of the gold miners, to produce, in the company’s words, the “signature dark-gold, crunchy crust, soft chewy center and distinctive flavor”.
His secret lay in using the “mother dough” as a natural starter and allowing the bread to rise and “sour” at its own speed. Even when caked yeast became the industry norm, he continued to use his slow method of leavening the bread with the mother dough.
When he died in 1887, his wife of 14 years, Louise, with the support of their four children, especially daughter Lucie, ran the business successfully for 23 years, moving twice, in 1890 to 815 Broadway and then in 1906 to its present 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard location in the Inner Richmond district.
Louise’s greatest triumph was in rescuing the mother dough during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire by mobilising the family to carry it in buckets of ice to Golden Gate Park where they baked bread over open fires. This ensured that they always kept a portion of the mother dough to mix for the next day’s bread. A formidable woman, she earned the title of the “social leader of the French colony”.
The bakery still uses the same starter-yeast-bacteria culture that Isidore developed back in the 1840s. At the start of the mixing process, a piece of the mother dough is combined with flour, water and salt, divided into batches and shaped into loaves, which are refrigerated for 24 hours. The loaves are placed in a proof - or steam – box to rise. They are then scored, or slit, and baked in a 400 degree oven.
Despite the advent of mechanisation and modern baking methods, the company has steadfastly refused to use fats, sugars, preservatives, or dough conditioners, insisting that only natural ingredients be used.
Recent visitors will be familiar with the half block long flagship store on Jefferson Street on Fisherman’s Wharf which opened in 2005. Within its 26,000 square feet of space are an espresso bar, bistro, full service restaurant and private dining room, Bakers Hall market, museum and 5,000 foot demonstration bakery where the dough is mixed on a platform 20 feet above the ground floor, then tossed to the bakers below. Passers-by are able to watch this spectacle through the 30 foot observation window fronting the bakery or, more excitingly, from a catwalk suspended directly over the bakery. Nearly 3,000 loaves are produced daily for sale in the adjoining café and shop.
The museum upstairs chronicles the history of sourdough bread on a 28 foot timeline, focusing on the history of San Francisco through the eyes of bakers. Numerous artefacts associated with the baking process are also on display, including an antique baking wagon used to deliver bread, a replica of Louise’s desk and a carving of the founder himself.
In total, around 20,000 loaves are sold every day in the San Francisco area. In addition to the 20 different flavours used, loaves are sculpted into numerous exotic shapes on request, including crabs, turtles, alligators, turkeys, pumpkins, shamrocks, snowmen and cable cars. Boudin now has around 30 other bakeries in California, including one at at Disney’s California Adventure Park which includes the hour long attraction The Bakery Tour.
I intimated at the beginning of this piece that the “Original San Francisco Sourdough Bread” is an acquired taste. In 1990 city residents voted Boudin their favourite San Francisco bread. Herb Caen claimed in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Fresh cracked crab with Boudin’s round “dark bake” sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of California Chardonnay is still the quintessential S.F. meal”.
Well, I’d like to raise a glass to that and say both “Merci” and “Santé” to Monsieur Boudin!