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The History of California Bread

The history of California bread as a prominent factor in the field of bread baking dates from the days of the Gold Rush and the development of sourdough bread in San Francisco, and includes the development of artisan bakeries in the 1980s, which strongly influenced what has been called the "Bread Revolution".

Bread in San Francisco

There have been independent retail bakeries in San Francisco continuously since the California Gold Rush of 1849, and many restaurants make their own bread. However, in the wholesale market (which distributes bread regionally to restaurants and grocery stores) was marked by a slow decline from the early heyday, and the subsequent emergence of a new generation of artisan bakers.

Gold rush era

San Francisco is a favorable location for baking high quality bread, particularly sourdough, due to humidity and temperate climate. Sourdough, invented in ancient Egypt and common in parts of Europe, became the primary bread of San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. Gold miners valued it for their camps because of its durability, and the relative ease of obtaining yeast.

Although many different kinds of starter are suitable for making sourdough, specific local native species of wild bacteria (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) and of yeast (Candida milleri) have been recently isolated as the dominant cultures in the most prized local breads. By 1854 there were 63 bakeries in San Francisco. "Starter" yeasts were either carefully kept and maintained by each bakery as a "mother starter", or simply allowed to generate from the ambient air.

Boudin Bakery was founded in 1849 by Isadore Boudin, son of a family of master bakers from Burgundy, France. Boudin came for the gold trade but instead opened a bakery, where he invented the San Francisco style of sourdough by applying French baking methods to the fermented dough breads the California miners were eating. Parisian Bakers, for many years the most popular bread in San Francisco, started in 1856. In Oakland, Toscana started in 1895 and Colombo started in 1896.

Parisian supplied San Francisco's oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill, for 141 years until the bakery was shut down. The three surviving bakeries continue to use each of their respective mother starters, developed in the 19th century.

Postwar decline

A generation of decline and consolidation, starting after World War II, led to poor quality bread in San Francisco. The mid-20th century began a "Dark Ages" for bread, as most Americans began to eat prepackaged, sliced loaves. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, there was less fresh bread available across America, leading writer Henry Miller to exclaim, "You can travel 50,000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread."

Much of the decline paralleled the nationwide trends, both for bread and other foods, of consolidation, lower priced and frozen ingredients, reducing labor costs, and adding preservatives for longer shelf life. Mechanization requires drier dough than hand-formed loaves, leading to drier loaves that do not have the same large air bubbles and chewy consistency of good sourdough.

Despite quality issues, sourdough remained popular. Today it accounts for 70% of all bread sales among the top three independent bakeries.

Some small producers from the Gold Rush era kept the sourdough tradition and continued to produce bread. Steven Giraudo, an artisan baker who immigrated from Italy in 1935, took his first job in America at Boudin, then bought the bakery out of bankruptcy in 1941. He later sold it to a larger company, but after a series of ownership changes the bakery was bought back by two of Giraudo's sons through their investment bank.

The Giraudo family bought Parisian, transferring it to the San Francisco French Bread Company of Oakland, California, in 1984. That company was in turn acquired by Interstate Brands Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1993, which went bankrupt and shut down Parisian in 2005.

Despite their history, the old bakeries that survived are not small, and are not "artisan" operations in the common sense. The top three bakeries employ 1,000 people and make sixty million "units" of bread per year (mostly loaves) that they sell in more than 4,000 Northern California outlets, as well as airports and supermarkets throughout the United States. Boudin operates 32 retail outlets, mostly as coffee shops, including notable branches at Disneyland and Fisherman's Wharf.

San Francisco Sourdough Bread Company bought both Colombo and Toscana, and replaced the hearth ovens used for handmade sourdough with high capacity ovens. Before its demise, Interstate was making 217,460 loaves of bread and 71,540 rolls a week from the Parisian factory in San Francisco, as well as Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and Ho Hos snacks from a sister factory nearby.

Artisan bread movement

The Bay Area's artisan bread movement represents a return to small production of handmade loaves. The artisan bread movement was in some ways a return to older techniques styles, but in some ways a shift. Unlike the Gold Rush bakers, they were based on French and Italian techniques, and very crusty.

Among the hallmarks of the new artisan breads, loaves are exposed to steam while baking (a technique developed in Vienna, Austria), creating a shiny surface that may be crusty or chewy, while keeping the interior moist. "Rustic" breads use whole grain flours, including rye flour and whole wheat.

Breads are "scored" with decorative cross-cuts, along which the bread cracks while rising and baking to allow steam to escape. Scores are made in distinctive styles that identify each bakery.

The first of the many new companies arose out of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Carmel Valley, California, a group of monks derived from the San Francisco Zen Center (which owns Greens Restaurant) that began baking bread in 1963 and operated a bakery in San Francisco's Cole Valley from 1976 to 1992. A pastry shop, Just Desserts, operated the bakery from then until 1999.

The Cheese Board Collective opened in 1967 in what would later be known as Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto", and became a worker-owned cooperative in 1971.

In 1970 Narsai David, now food and wine editor of KCBS and a nationally-syndicated food writer, opened a highly successful catering business and restaurant, Narsai's, in Kensington, California. Narsai's became renowned for its breadmaking. David explained his philosophy: "Using nothing more than flour, water, salt and yeast, you could bake a loaf of bread in as little as three hours—or you could take 24 hours. The one that takes 24 hours has developed a much more sophisticated flavor. Take two to three hours and the bread tastes like flour and water."

Acme Bread Company

Founder Steve Sullivan grew up in Los Gatos, California, and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley in 1975, intending to major in rhetoric.  He earned money as a busboy at Chez Panisse. While riding his bike through England during a summer trip to Europe he bought English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David's 1977 book on breadmaking and bread history.

Excited by the book, and wanting to recreate the bread he had enjoyed in Paris, he began experimenting with baking for himself. In 1979, when Chez Panisse's then-supplier, the Cheese Board Collective, could not keep up with its demands, Sullivan became the restaurant's in-house breadmaker. However, his breadmaking and the restaurant's food preparation were both competing for the restaurant's limited physical space.

In 1983 he left, with the restaurant's encouragement, to open his own company, Acme. Jeremiah Tower, then head chef, encouraged Sullivan to study breadmaking at Narsai David's bakery. He and wife Susan launched Acme with approximately $180,000 of seed capital, half funded by Doobie Brothers guitarist Patrick Simmons through a leaseback arrangement.

Steve and Susan Sullivan took a honeymoon in France the year before starting the business. During their visit to a winery in Bandol, the son of the owners suggested they make their mother starter from the natural yeast of wine grapes. On returning home, he made the starter Acme continues to use in all of its bakeries by collecting unsulfered Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes from a vineyard his father owned, and adding them to a flour and water mixture.

After Acme

Many other artisan bakers have followed in the steps of Tassajara, Cheese Board, Narsai's, and Acme, often started by veterans of other local bakeries and of Chez Panisse. Semifreddi's Bakery was opened in Kensington in 1983 by Eric and Carol Sartenaer, who had worked together at the Cheese Board Collective.

In 1989 former Chez Panisse pastry chef Dianne Dexter and her husband David started Metropolis Baking Company, hiring a head baker who had worked at both Acme and Semifreddi's. La Farine Bakery was bought by Jeff Dodge, who had worked with Acme for six years. Glenn Mitchell, who had baked with Simmons at Chez Panisse, started Grace Baking Co. at the "Market Hall" food emporium in Oakland, California in 1987. Craig Ponsford founded Artisan Breads in Sonoma, California in 1992.

The Cheese Board helped set up a sister cooperative, Arizmendi Bakery, in 1997 in Oakland, and another in San Francisco's Inner Sunset in 2000.[16] Other notable brands with wide local distribution include the French-Italian Bakery in San Francisco's North Beach (which distributes primarily to restaurants), The Bread Workshop, and Noe Valley Bakery.

All told there are at least 65 "Microbakeries" in the Bay Area, including than the original bakers (Boudin, Colombo, and Toscana), collectively making approximately 2.4 million loaves of bread per week All are small locally-owned operations that distribute locally, except for the "big three" and Grace Baking, which was purchased in 2002 by Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian firm, and distributes nationally to Safeway and Costco. Grace maintains quality standards by baking the bread only partly, with final baking at the point of sale. Recently, Artisan and Boudin have entered into a distribution arrangement.

Although they represent a return to older ideals of craftsmanship, modern San Francisco breadmakers do not generally try to recreate old-style bread. Instead, the bakeries compete to develop signature loaves and to develop unique shapes, flavors, and styles. Oven technology is greatly improved.

Because sourdough is even more sensitive to ambient weather than other bread, bakeries are heavily dependent on climate control, refrigeration, and meteorological measurements and predictions to maintain ideal temperature and humidity conditions, giving them a consistency that would have been impossible during the Gold Rush.

Technically competitors, the various commercial bakeries keep cordial relations and openly share information, mirroring an international culture of collegiality among small bakers. When Ponsford opened Artisan in 1992, Grace, Acme, Semifreddi’s, and Metropolis, all shared advice and information. Ponsford went on to lead the industry association, the Bread Bakers Guild of America.

Specialty bakers are not the only source of artisan bread in the Bay Area. Large grocers such as Safeway, Whole Foods, and Andronicos have in-store bakeries that produce sourdough, baguettes, and rustic breads in their Bay Area locations. A number of local restaurants make bread for their own use and also retail sale.

Among these is a San-Francisco based chain, Il Fornaio, that licensed a breadmaking concept from Milan, Italy, and has spread internationally and distributes to supermarkets. Restaurateur Pascal Rigo has opened a string of restaurants and patisseries under the umbrella "Bay Bread."

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