Today I was speaking to one of my customers over a catered lunch from Panera Bread. As he tore off a piece of bread from their customary French loaf, he stated that bread is the only food that everyone shares among various cultures. I agreed and told him that growing up in New Orleans; French bread was a staple on our nightly dinner table and I especially enjoyed it with Red Beans & Rice. I use to think that there was nothing better than French bread from New Orleans until I went to San Francisco and stuffed myself with as much sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery as I could before leaving the Bay City.
We arrived in San Francisco late in the day after spending time in Santa Cruz. After checking into our hotel, we found ourselves famished between a long day at the beach and the three-hour drive. As luck would have it, Bistro Boudin was within walking distance from our hotel and an added perk was that it offered fabulous views of the bay and Alcatraz. Of course, we enjoyed a basket of delicious sourdough bread, and as my son devoured it, he asked: “what makes this bread so good?”
At the time I didn’t have an answer, but we quickly found out after dinner when we visited the Boudin Museum & toured the bakery. Since we ate at Bistro Boudin, admission to the bakery and museum was complimentary. I was expecting just to learn how they made the bread, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn not just the history of the bakery, but of other pioneering business of San Francisco like Levi Strauss & Co., Ghirardelli, Del Monte and Wells, Fargo & Co.
In addition to learning about the pioneering businesses that were original to the Bay City, there was also a fascinating exhibit that focused on San Francisco’s first foods and some of them were quite surprising, specifically Irish Coffee and Fortune Cookies!
After learning the history of the first businesses and food created in San Francisco, we played around with the interactive computer game that allowed us to match our personality to a special bread. My son was easily distracted with a basket of bread nearby and began to sample it, and I had to remind him several times the definition of “sample” and moved him along to the exhibits that explained the mystery of the fabulous bread that he so enjoyed.
We learned that to make San Francisco Sourdough, the water in the dough must weigh 62% of whatever the flour weighs. More water makes a lighter loaf with bigger holes, like ciabatta. Less water makes a denser loaf, like a bagel. Sourdough comes from only four ingredients: mother dough, flour, salt, and water. Are you wondering what is the “mother dough”? I, of course, was curious and learned that the Argonauts who came to California in pursuit of gold had no access to fresh supplies of yeast, so they had to rely on natural leaven- a mixture of wild yeast and lactobacillus – a formula that dates back to the Egyptians more than 6,000 years ago. Like the ancients, each day they set aside some dough to start the rising process for the next day’s bread. This “mother dough’, or starter, invariably took on distinct microflora characteristics as the lactobacillus in the grain itself responded to the local climate, allowing some strains to become more dominant than others. In San Francisco, this resulted in a particularly pleasing tangy flavor that has made San Francisco sourdough bread renowned.
We wrapped up the visit to Boudin Bakery by continuing to learn about the art of baking as we toured the demonstration bakery, watching the bakers from above and through the glass windows of the first floor. The bakers loaded baskets that were attached to track with bread. The filled baskets lead us to Bakers Hall which was home to the marketplace and cafe’. Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying a loaf to go, which ultimately turned out to be my son’s breakfast the next morning!