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Posts Tagged ‘North Beach San Francisco’


I dreamt long last night of San Francisco,
As I have done on so many nights since
I left my heart there twenty years ago,
I trust these verses will you too convince.

I stood upon summer brown Bernal Hill,
Watching the golden city laid before me
Like a lover spread ‘cross a crumpled bed,
In no sweeter place would I rather be.

Standing astride the stunning Sunset steps
As Karl the Fog weaves his cool, wondrous spell,
Slicing Sutro Tower in half before,
In a heartbeat, it returns and all’s well.

Hanging for dear life from the cable car
I crest the hill on Hyde at dawn of day,
Siren song from all the foghorns moaning
As we hurtle down to the glistening bay.

Eating popovers by Pacific shore
Among the tourists and locals well dressed,
Humming to O Sole Mio on a Saturday
While wrestling a ristretto at Trieste.

Hailing Emperor Norton and his doting flock,
As they follow him on the Barbary Coast,
Waiting two hours in Mama’s breakfast line
For bacon, eggs benedict and French toast.

Hunting for tie-dye tees in Hippie Haight,
Paying homage to Harvey on Castro Street,
Reading a whole novel on the F Streetcar
As it clanks and clatters to a Market beat.

Drinking a cool, tall glass of Anchor Steam
With ghosts of Ginsberg, Neal and Kerouac,
In North Beach’s celebrated beat retreat
With Joyce’s peering portrait at my back.

Gorging on Gilroy’s garlic fries at the yard
As gulls circle above to claim what’s left,
Pablo slams a mighty walk off splash hit
To leave downhearted Dodgers fans bereft.

Sharing tales of shows at the Fillmore West
In Martha’s line for coffee and muffin,
The Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves
To Lovejoy’s ladies taking tea and tiffin.

The scent of jasmine on our Noe porch,
Sea lions honking on the wharfside pier,
Sourdough crust with Coppola chardonnay,
And that bracelet of bridges held so dear.

These and other images engulf my mind –
Painted houses, murals and gleaming bay,
Neighbourhoods full of music, food and fun –
I mourn the undue advent of the day.

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In 1995 we were finally persuaded to avert our enraptured gaze from Italy (we had already been to Milan and Sicily that year), to make our first belated trip to San Francisco and, indeed, the United States.

As our tour bus rattled over the Bay Bridge on a balmy early October afternoon, Louis, pronounced Lewis, our chain smoking guide from Barcelona with a penchant for stand up comedy, took to his feet, but not before instructing the driver to press play on the cassette recorder and release the crackling strains of Tony Bennett upon us.

(The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,

  the glory that is Rome is of another day)

These words were, however, indistinct on this occasion as they coincided with Louis loudly clearing his throat before uttering the two words that we had become accustomed to hear him preface every announcement with:

“Okey cokey”.

(I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I’m going home to my city by the Bay)

This was the cue for another, more violent attack of phlegm.

(To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care)

That was the last we heard of Tony, at least for now, because Louis, larynx lubricated, was gearing up for a speech. He had an important message to impart to us before we were disgorged at our downtown hotel.

“You’ve all heard this song, haven’t you?”.

He couldn’t resist another, much more genteel, croak while fifty three passengers smiled and nodded in his direction.

“Well, it’s true. You WILL leave your heart in San Francisco”.

Emboldened by such an emphatic statement, he continued:

“We’ve been together on this bus now for twelve days and we have seen some incredible sights – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas , the Hoover Dam and even Disneyland. But this city is the place that will capture your heart. I am telling you that when you leave in three days time, you will know exactly what Tony Bennett means”.

As his fans beamed in childlike anticipation, Louis made one final claim before reaching for his cigarettes:

“If you don’t, then Louis knows nothing”.

If the last twelve days had taught us anything, it was that this squat, swarthy man from Spain, who might have passed for either fifty or seventy years of age, knew a lot about everything. We were, therefore, inclined to trust him on this one.

With one final, hearty cough – and another “okey cokey” for good measurehe descended the steps of the coach, shook hands with the proprietor of the Best Western Canterbury Hotel and lit up while the driver helped us to locate our luggage.

(Your golden sun will shine for me).

And for me.

Louis was right.

Despite twelve days witnessing one jaw juddering attraction after another, which had also, bizarrely, included listening to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial on the pier at Santa Monica, San Francisco did not disappoint. Not everyone in our party was as thrilled by its charms, as complaints about the homelessness, dirt on the streets and crowded cable cars testified.

But I saw beyond this.

Of course, I was primed for love.

It had been one of the longest courtships from a distance in history.

We stayed three nights in the heart of the Tenderloin, which rendered the moans about aggressive panhandling and grime entirely believable, and crammed in just about every tourist hot spot we could:

  • Twin Peaks (for orientation);
  • Cliff House (for the washrooms inside and jewellery stalls outside, no time for brunch yet);
  • Golden Gate Bridge (for what we would learn later was the second best view – from Vista Point);
  • Pier 39 (for family presents and the sea lion show);
  • Fisherman’s Wharf (for the clam chowder and fleeces (only joking about the latter));
  • Ghirardelli Square (for the chocolate, what else);
  • Union Square (Lori’s Diner and the Gold Dust Lounge, though I’m told there were a few reputable stores there too);
  • North Beach (for the coffee and Italian ambiance);
  • Chinatown (for cheap gifts on Grant Avenue and unmentionable looking foodstuffs on Stockton Street), and
  • Alcatraz (or at least we would have if we had had the gumption to purchase tickets in advance).

We still contrived to fit in an afternoon on Haight Street to enable me to pay homage to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, who had died just eight weeks before. And, of course, we stood in line for hours at both the Powell and Hyde turnarounds to catch a ride on the cable cars, marvelled at the cars snaking down Lombard Street, had dinner in Chinatown, and on our last night at The Stinking Rose (I still feel sorry for the other passengers sitting within three rows of us on the flight home the next afternoon).

And the rest is, as any regular reader will know, history.

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It’s near two hundred days since I slouched atop green Bernal Hill,

Dismissing the dogs drooling over my “Progressive Grounds” wrap.

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I watched with increasing heavy heart the planes fly towards SFO,

Doleful omens that my own flight home grew ever nearer. 

Now, finally, my next pilgrimage is as close as the last,

But it might as well be another two hundred years as days;

With the city again in the grip of World Series fever,

I yearn to bask beneath the evening city’s orange glow.

So much I miss about this cool, gorgeous, dirty, expensive place.

The soulful song of the foghorns out across the Golden Gate.

That heart stopping moment when you crest the hill at Hyde  

And pier, park and prison under a pristine sky come into view.

Community singing with Elvis and Snow White in Club Fugazi 

Before following Casady, Kerouac and Ginsberg to Vesuvio Cafe

Where I sit beneath James Joyce with a glass of Anchor Steam.

Bowing dutifully to Emperor Norton as he leads his latest star-struck

Subjects round the now scrubbed and polished Barbary Coast.

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Standing on stairways in Sunset and Bernal,

Gazing open-mouthed as Karl the Fog weaves his moody magic,

Slicing Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower in half before 

Rendering them clear and whole again in a heartbeat.

Mouthing along to “O Mio Babbino Caro” 

While wrestling a ristretto at Caffe Trieste.  

Devouring warm, thickly buttered popovers by the Pacific

Among the toffs and tourists at the Cliff House.

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Scouring for the latest tie-dye tees in still heady Haight.

Getting through a minor novel on the F Streetcar as it

Clanks and clatters down Market and along Embarcadero.

Savouring the scents of jasmine and lemon on the backyard patio.

Marvelling at the Mission murals and their passion and exuberance

Reassures me this changing city still harbours an independent spirit.   

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Sharing stories of Dead concerts at Lyceum and Fillmore 

In the line for breakfast at Martha’s on Church,

Where the Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves

Its bunting at “Lovejoy’s” ladies taking tea and tiffin. 

Shovelling down “Gilroy’s” garlic fries at the ballpark before 

The circling seagulls, mindful of each innings slipping away,

Prepare to swoop to reclaim their birthright.

Watching a liquid sun decline over the serene lagoon 

Of the soon to be centurion Palace of Fine Arts,

What better resting place after the Lyon Street Steps descent?

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And breathing a sigh of relief as the recycling police

Leave me alone for yet another week. 

These and many more images flood my brain.

But never mind.

For now at least, there’s more baseball torture to

Endure from afar in the dark of the night.

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I haven’t always been obsessed with San Francisco.

There was a time when I was obsessed with Italy.

My affection has never diminished for the land of olives, arias and elections. It’s just that since we first – belatedly – discovered the United States, and San Francisco in particular, the siren call from across the Atlantic has invariably proved too hard to resist.

But for a decade in the eighties and nineties, it was Italy that held us in its thrall.

Our first date, however, did not go well.

Midway through a twelve day cheese and wine driving tour of France, we made a short detour into Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel. That excursion might have lasted a little longer had it not been for the fact that, having realised we had the taken a wrong turn on the outskirts of Courmayeur, we reversed onto the newly laid tarmac driveway of the startled, and more worryingly, burly owner.

Fortunately, our hire car had sufficient power to outpace him, his even sturdier wife, three small children and fearsome German shepherd dog as they gesticulated in a manner that seems to be every Italian’s birthright.

Having lain low from Interpol for a couple of years,  diplomatic relations were restored when we snuck back on a ten day coach tour that included Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice and Assisi (our earliest encounter with San Francisco?).

Over the next few years we took short breaks to Florence, Venice and Milan. Longer holidays followed to Sorrento (twice), Lakes Garda and Como and, loveliest of all, Taormina in Sicily. We even abandoned France one year to base ourselves in the Aosta Valley resort of La Thuile, from whence we could ski over the border to La Rosiere.

No matter that public life was mired in scandal and corruption, and that television was a boorish blend of babes, boobs and Berlusconi baloney. We were now besotted with the breathtaking natural beauty, history, sense of style and the ravenous appetite for life of the people. We enjoyed la dolce vita, worshipped la bella figura, and did our best to blend seamlessly into la passeggiata every evening. Puccini, Giotto and Michelangelo became my cultural icons. The whole country was one large show and we loved it.

Climbing up from Piazzetta Michelangelo to San Miniato al Monte in Florence, coming upon the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa for the first time, getting lost among the remoter calle in Venice, gazing on Santa Lucia in Naples, walking the Circus Maximus……the list goes on.

In 1992 I began to learn the language (that, acording to Lord Byron, ” sounds as if it should be written on satin”) in earnest, and attained a Royal Society of Arts Level 1 diploma with distinction.

And then there was the calcio.

Serie A was at that time the most glamorous football (soccer) league in Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona may still have attracted many of the bigger names, but La Liga was not televised on British television as it is now, or if it was, only to a miniscule satellite audience. And the Premier League in England was only in its infancy.

But Sunday afternoon on Channel 4 was one of the highlights of my week, when a top Italian league game was televised live. The Saturday morning magazine show, Gazzetta Football Italia, presented by the witty and well informed James Richardson (did he ever drink that cappuccino or eat that gelato that shimmered on the table in front of him?), showed highlights of all the previous week’s games and featured interviews with the top players, including Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince, who took the rare route of moving from England to Europe.

It was bliss to an Italophile like me.

Roberto Baggio with his languid style, pony tail and hip Buddhist beliefs, and Franco Baresi, the epitome of the Italian hard man defender, became my footballing heroes. We even named our pet rabbits, Baggio and Schilacci after their namesakes’ exploits in Italia ’90. The spectacle and drama of that World Cup tournament only endeared me to the country more. I could not even get downhearted when the host country beat England 1-0 in the third place play-off.

And then, five years later, I realised an ambition and attended the San Siro where, in front of 83,000 fans, AC Milan “welcomed” eventual Scudetto winners, Juventus. I’d always thought that English football supporters were passionate, but the fervour and fanaticism in that stadium that evening was astonishing. One elderly gentleman next to me spent the entire game clutching his prayer beads and yelling at Milan’s mercurial Yugoslav playmaker, Dejan Savicevic, to produce a moment of magic for the hosts, but to no avail.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I kept my allegiance to La Vecchia Signora (Juventus) firmly under wraps as they strolled to a 2-0 victory with goals from Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, both later to star in the Premier League. The contrast with the last match I had been to, between Gillingham and Bury four nights previously in front of little over 3,000, could not have been more striking.

It was later in that year that we made our first fateful trip to the American West. We didn’t abandon Italy immediately as we visited Lake Como two years later. But it was another decade before we renewed acquaintance with La Serenissima as part of my wife’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.

And now, another seven years later, we are finally returning for a third time to Sorrento. We may only be there for a week, but that will be enough to enable us to go back to Capri, Pompeii, Naples and the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Amalfi and Ravello).

Torna a Surriento!

 

 

 

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I have already referred in part to our first full day back in San Francisco (early rising and the trip to the Church and Market branch of Safeway) in the previous two blog articles. With a full month to play with, this was no time for dashing from one tourist attraction to another, but rather to acclimatise ourselves to the neighbourhood.

After breakfast in the apartment, inevitably of granola and sourdough toast, we ventured up the hill on Church Street to 24th Street, the principal retail and dining area of Noe Valley.

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What struck us immediately were the luxuriant flower displays, especially of bougainvillea, draped over shop fronts and garage forecourts alike. Accustomed to visiting in the spring, we had not witnessed their splendour before now.

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Our already full event calendar acquired another entry when we discovered that the Noe Valley Summer Fest was to be held on Saturday 15th of the month, the same day as the first day of the North Beach Festival taking place over that weekend. With the Stern Grove Festival in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, we were going to be busy! Thankfully, the Giants game against the San Diego Padres on the following day was an evening affair.   

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After coffee, served in large bowls, in La Boulange on the intersection of 24th and Sanchez, and a brief reconnaisance of those shops that held our interest, we embarked upon the steep climb up Noe Street to Dolores Park for one of the stellar views across the city.

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Aside from the obvious photo opportunities it affords, Dolores Park is a hugely popular venue for picnics, sunbathing and people watching. And what people watching! There has been a long running feud between members (literally!) of the gay community and city authorities about nude sunbathing, rendered sensitive by the presence of the fun and funky Helen Diller Children’s Playground in its centre.

But the still relatively cool morning meant that the occupants of the park comprised nothing more threatening than a couple of fully-clothed ageing hippies, impossibly cute Shih Poos and workmen (not so cute).

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We made our way courageously (adults are not permitted without being supervised by a child) over the spongy bridge in the middle of the playground towards the majestic Mission Dolores, oldest surviving structure in the city, before branching left to the J Church MUNI Metro tracks that wove alongside the western fringe of the park.

We had a lunch of peanut butter (Janet) and turkey, egg and cheese (me) bagels and iced lattés at the Church Street Café. I am under strict instructions not to post the photos of our respective half-eaten meals, so readers will have to make do with one of your author instead (which some might say was more likely to frighten those of a sensitive disposition).

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Observations and photographs from the afternoon stroll down Castro Street to follow.

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How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant this evening and were immediately greeted by the head waiter admonishing you in a broken English Chinese accent to “sit down and shut up”, then ignoring you completely or, if you were lucky, hurling the menu at you?  Oh, and don’t make the mistake of requesting an English translation of that menu if you want to avoid a further volley of vitriol. And if you are a woman, or have women in your party, keep a close eye on that waiter because he is prone to grope female customers (the only time he is likely to crack into a smile).

So how would you react?  Walk out?  Ask to speak to the manager?  Post an adverse review on TripAdvisor?  Sue the restaurant?  Punch the waiter’s lights out?

Well, that is likely to have been your experience had you visited the Sam Wo restaurant on Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place, in Chinatown during the decades following the second world war.  And it is equally likely that you may have chosen to dine there in the express hope that you would be on the receiving end of such appalling service.  Indeed, being insulted at Sam Wo became as much a “must do” San Francisco experience as drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Your tormentor would have been Edsel Ford Fong, the “world’s rudest waiter”, who, in the words of Stephen Jay Hansen in his excellent The Other Guide to San Francisco – or 105 Things to Do After You’ve Taken a Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf, “baits and berates male customers and shamelessly hustles every woman who enters his domain.  He’ll throw you a load of chopsticks with a brusque “Dry!” or spirit away your date to help him wait on tables.  He’s a refreshingly irreverent wit and an absolutely crazed madman”.

It’s No. 58 by the way (of the things to do that is, not a dish on the menu).

Fong, who was born in Chinatown on 6th May 1927, was an imposing figure measuring six foot and weighing 200 pounds, sporting a severe crew cut hairstyle and wearing both a long apron and permanent scowl.  He exploited his reputation brazenly, criticising customers’ menu choices, getting orders wrong (deliberately?), slamming food on the table and spilling it over the customers, refusing to provide knives and forks as alternatives to chopsticks, removing plates before the customer had finished eating, and reacting angrily to tips that didn’t exceed 15% (surely such an entertainer has a right to expect more?!). Unsuspecting white tourists were particularly fair game for his most patronising and scurrilous comments.

Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was a regular patron of Sam Wo and an amused advocate of Fong, repeating Edsel’s finest insults from the night before in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper.  Fong would respond by proudly waving it at anyone in the restaurant who was interested or wan’t, it was all the same to him.

He died in April 1984 but his legacy lives on in many ways, not least in the occasionally churlish service still prevalent at Sam Wo today, though it lacks the panache brought to it by Fong.  A series of club-level Asian food stands at AT& T Park are named after him, and his status in the community has been visually commemorated in his inclusion in the 200 foot long, 7 foot tall “Gold Mountain” mural depicting Chinese contributions to US history, painted on the side of an apartment building in Romolo Place near the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach.

Fong also appears in  Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and was played by Arsenio “Sonny Trinidad” in the ensuing miniseries.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from the book where our heroine, naive Mary Ann Singleton still fresh out of Cleveland, and taken to Sam Wo’s by bumbling private investigator, Norman Neal Williams, bears the brunt of Fong’s ire:

“Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands!’

Thunderstruck, she turned to see where the voice had come from. An indignant Chinese waiter was unloading plates of noodles from the dumbwaiter. She stopped in her tracks, stared at her accuser, then looked back towards the rest room.

The sink was outside the door. In the dining room.

A dozen diners were watching her, smirking at her discomfort. The waiter stood his ground. ‘Wash, lady. You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’

She washed, returning red-faced to the table. Norman grinned sheepishly. ‘I should have warned you’.

‘You knew he would do that?’

He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’

‘Well, I didn’t’”.

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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.

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The original bakery, a tiny olde world affair, stood at 319 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenuein 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”.e 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.

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The museum upstairs chronicles the history of sourdough bread on a 28 foot timelinefocusing 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!

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