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Posts Tagged ‘Sourdough bread’


I’ll confess that I’ve never really – until recently – looked after my teeth, so I have been remarkably lucky that they have given me little trouble in adult life.

Apart from one occasion.

An occasion that I had, for reasons you might just understand when you have read my story, erased from my conscious memory until a separate incident in our San Francisco apartment one morning last year brought it back.

Sourdough bread and I had always been on the best of terms, but we fell out when I crunched into a slice of peanut butter on toast with, in hindsight, unwise vigour and cracked an upper molar. Mild and temporary discomfort followed, along with anxiety that I might be compelled to part with many hundreds of dollars at either the Noe Valley Family and Cosmetic Dentistry or Aesthetic Dentistry of Noe Valley premises. For somebody already unnerved by the sight of a drill, those names did not appear especially welcoming. Travel insurance seemed little consolation in such circumstances.

But, in a day or two, I had virtually forgotten about the incident, apart from constantly prodding and licking the gap that had been created, much to my wife’s annoyance.

But it did bring back to me a previous visit to the dentist more than thirty years previously.

So, in a craven endeavour to solicit your sympathy rather than contempt for my inattention to aural health over many years, I will briefly relive that experience with you.

It was a baking Friday afternoon in the summer of 1981 in Tulse Hill, south-east London, less than two miles away from the riots that raged on the streets of Brixton. On learning that all four of my wisdom teeth were forcing themselves through at crooked angles, I was persuaded that they should be extracted before they caused too much trouble. In an uncharacteristic outbreak of physical courage I had also opted to have them removed at the surgery under local anaesthetic, rather than a general one in hospital.

My dentist, Mr Hall, was a tall, kindly, grey whiskered Trinidadian. He was due to retire in a few weeks, and this would be one of his last wisdom teeth extractions. He exuded all the calm and confidence that a timid patient about to entrust his entire mouth to could wish for.

“You have nothing to worry about, Mr Quarrington. I have done hundreds of these procedures”, he said as he flashed his own immaculate collection of teeth at me from above.

And after ten minutes of gentle coaxing two teeth had dutifully popped out.

He was right. There really was nothing to worry about. This was so much easier even than having a filling.

Why had all those so-called friends warned me about the procedure and recounted horror stories of losing the same teeth?

But wait a minute.

As one of my favourite rock lyricists wrote: “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.”

Three hours later I lay sprawling across the chair, my clothes disheveled and spattered with blood as Mr Hall beamed at me from the other end of the room and exclaimed:

“That was the most difficult wisdom teeth extraction I have ever done. But we made it, Mr Quarrington, we got those little blighters out in the end. You should feel very pleased with yourself”.

I felt many things at this time but pleased was not one of them. Exhausted, sore, tearful, relieved and perhaps even a little angry – but not pleased. I had lost count of the number of additional injections I had been subject to in that long, dark afternoon of the soul.

But Mr Hall could not conceal his own sense of triumph at having accomplished a task that had called for the use of every instrument in his bag of tricks, as well as some that would have belonged more in a factory housing heavy engineering than in the cool, antiseptic environment of a dentist’s surgery with Nat King Cole crooning lightly in the background.

Even the fact that he had been obliged to cancel a whole afternoon’s appointments, and sent his receptionist home half an hour earlier, failed to dampen his good humour. He was not, however, unmindful of my visible distress and insisted that I did not leave until I felt able to. I only lived a few hundred yards away and, although groggy, was able to get home without difficulty.

I don’t recall making a further appointment on my way out that day.

Nor one for some time afterwards.

What had begun as a natural anxiety about a straightfoward procedure had, in one traumatic afternoon, turned into a violent fear.

But I’m now back on the straight and narrow, though some of my teeth might not be able to claim the same.

And by the way, sourdough bread and I have long since reconciled in case you wondered.

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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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