Saturday, 17 December 2011


The story continues.

For a moment, I thought it wasn't going to happen.  

Afterall, the last email I got was straight after the auction, some six months ago.  A phone call to the bakery was unsuccessful, but was told that if I turned up at 5, I might be able to catch Chad.

The next day, I turned up just a little after 5.  A small queue had developed outside the shop, and I waited patiently in line.  The cafe is small and cosy with only had enough space for a handful of tables.  Benches and windows took two sides of the cafe.  The barista took up one corner and the pastry cabinet lined the remaining side.  It was filled with pastries, biscuits and tarts that I had read in the Tartine book.  While I waited, I saw cake being scooped deliciously into cups.  I was tempted, but had my eyes on the bread already.

I got half a loaf of the walnut bread, and asked whether I could speak with someone about my day at the bakery.  They were genuinely surprised and gave me odd looks.  Chad has a hectic schedule and it seemed unlikely something he would offer.

Oh no! Maybe I got this completely wrong?  This could be rather embarrassing...

"Chad might have left, but I'll check", she said.  I sat down and examined my loaf in the brown paper bag.  It was warm and the crust crisp.  It smelt so good.

Not long after, Chad came out from the bakery.  He gave me a firm handshake and introduced himself.  We spoke briefly to work out times, and with another handshake, it was set.  4pm the next day.  It wasn't a figment of my imagination afterall.

The first day was spent in the back room.  It was filled with bannetons: some were on the hanging shelf on the wall while others were on trolleys with growing loaves.  Underneath the shelve sits a wooden bench covered with tomorrow's loaves, all pre-shaped.  This bench looked suspiciously familiar and I wonder of this is the same one featured in the Tartine bread book.  I got to have a feel for the bread too.  It was cool to touch, but not cold.  The dough was malleable, puffy with air and had a jelly-like wobble when pushed.  

We had to wait for the bread to be ready for the final shape and so we chatted amongst ourselves.  One of them was a former chef from the UK who scored a place at the bakery through hard work and perseverance.  He made numerous unanswered phone calls, and had to literally baked his way into the bakery.  In exchanged, I told him about my serendipitous story with the auction.  How lucky was I?  Chad was amazed that his book has made its way to Tasmania and said that on occasion, people had recognised him from the book.  There are plans to translate the book into other languages, so who knows where else it will turn up?

With the baking out of the way and there's free bannetons, it was time to shape tomorrow's bread.  As they folded, I can't help but marvel at how quickly and beautifully each one was shaped.

I watched on as Chad and another baker shaped all of the breads until two were left.  I was allowed to shape one, while he used the other to demonstrate the technique step by step.  Despite all the watching, I couldn't quite get the hang of folding.  Mine still looked a little strange!

Afterwards Chad gave me some tips on my feeding schedule, hopefully this will encourage the yeast to be more active (I thought I hadn't given the yeast enough time, but I had, in fact, been starving it).  So the new schedule is:

Friday: feed in morning, feed at night
Saturday: feed in morning, mix in afternoon, rise overnight
Sunday: bake in morning

I can't wait to try this!

The next day, I was back in the bakery to observe the bake.  I didn't need to go far, as the gas oven is right behind the register and could be seen from the cafe.  It's a tall metallic beast with four levels, each with its own left and right trap door.  Loaves were being loaded into the oven using something that looks like a modified hospital bed.  It's lined with two thick cloth that could be rotated, complete with wheels and hydraulics that would lift and lower the tray.

Chad would dust and load about 18-20 loaves on the loader and each loaf scored by hand, mostly by the blade.  Some were cut by scissors, like the ones lined with oats that made it difficult to cut with the blade. They made cute little accents on top of the bread -- how cool is that?  I always marvel at the way each loaf would sigh a little as it is scored, revealing a  bubbly interior that would spring open dramatically in the hot oven.  It's like magic.

The loader is pushed through the flap and into the oven, at which point, the sheet is pulled back with some force.  Steam is injected after the bread goes in, and some would escape in a big plume through the door.  Within half an hour or so, the entire oven was packed.

When it is ready, loaves were pulled out of the oven using wooden paddle and placed on flattened cardboard boxes.  The bread would scratched and crackled on the cardboard, three, four at a time.  Sometimes a few loaves would be left untouched, or moved to a lower oven.

Other staff would don on white gloves and pulls these hot loaves into paper bags for eager customers, while others were put into other bags for customers who had placed an order.  Chad only bakes 200 loaves per day.  He used to bake more before, but for the sake of his sanity (since everything is hand made) and a better night's sleep, he's opt to bake less each day.

Some of the bread is destined for Bar Tartine.  One of the bakers would out a few in the thick cloth bag, and he would do a bread run to the restaurant about a block away.

I haven't been there yet, but am hoping to make a visit there one night.  But there's so many great restaurants here in San Francisco, like Mission Chinese Food and local:Mission Eatery (with a cool cookbook library!)  Right next door is Philz Coffee, where baristas are happy to guide you through their numerous blends.  I had a great cup of nutty and smooth coffee, proudly hand made one cup at a time.  There's also a market there every Thursday night that I am yet to make a visit.  The Mission district is heaven for all things food.  It's also the home to one very inspiring grocery store, the Bi-Rite Market (and Bi-Rite Creamery).   It's definitely worth the 45 minute walk up that way!  It's not hard to see why I have extended my stay here...

It was a brilliant experience to observe the bakery in action, and to see great masters making the most delicious bread I have ever tasted in my life.  It was a little strange and a little surreal to see everything that I had read in the book in action and has inspired me to bake even more.

Look out!  There will be an avalanche of bread appearing on your door steps soon!


  1. What an experience Pauline, you must have had the best couple of days! Gorgeous photos. I'd never really thought of San Fransisco as a foodie destination, but it certainly sounds like that.

  2. It's really lovely here :) And it's warm -- 16 degrees in the middle of winter!

  3. Wow! I am green with envy :)

    What a great experience ... just discovered your blog ... hello from sunny Brisbane!