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Give Us This Day, Our Daily Bread

by  Wanda Hennig on October 31, 2011
Give Us This Day, Our Daily Bread

Never underestimate the value of having a friend who loves to bake bread. Real bread. Bread that takes almost as long to make as it takes me to fly from South Africa to San Francisco. A friend who both bakes bread and requests, when I travel to San Francisco, not that I buy her something and bring it back, but that I go and eat something for her at the bakery that provides the inspiration — and recipe — for her bread.

"When you're there, will you go to Tartine? Will you go and eat something for me at Tartine?" my friend Carole Paxton asks a couple of days before I'm due to fly.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because I can't," she says.

"What do you want me to eat at Tartine?" I ask.

"Anything," she says. "And come back and tell me about it."

Bread. With a substantial blistered crust baked dark and holding "a voluptuous, wildly open crumb with the sweet character of natural fermentation and a subtle balanced acidity," to quote from what Tartine founder, co-owner and baker Chad Robertson had in mind when he set out on his quest to create the perfect loaf. Bread in baguette form, cut in half, rubbed with garlic and holding slices of delicately pungent Brie and juicy ripe tomato, sprinkled with sea salt to release the flavor; all this drizzled with olive oil and eaten almost anywhere in Europe while on casual summer vacation trips. Bread, sliced or broken from a crispy warm loaf and shared with family and friends at lunchtime in the garden under trees or at dinnertime round a table near a flickering fire. What is tastier and more conducive to conviviality than good bread?

I have as long as I can remember loved good bread. Eaten good bread.

But, I learned only recently, I've truly appreciated very little about what goes into the making of much of the really good bread I've enjoyed. Who would have imagined that I would discover more about bread than I thought was possible not to know in a kitchen in South Africa from a friend using recipes from "Tartine Bread" (Chronicle Books), which originated in the eponymous bakery and café in San Francisco?

"Wonderment. That's what I experience every time I remove the lid from the cast iron Dutch oven [combo cooker] that the bread has been baking in for 20 minutes and see how the thing has puffed up. And then more wonderment at the end of another 20 minutes when it has turned crusty and golden brown. It never ceases to amaze me. I think that's the fascination of baking bread. Why it becomes addictive and you keep doing it. Why the guy from Tartine wanted to dedicate his life to baking the perfect loaf of traditional artisanal bread using natural leaven [often called sourdough]," Paxton says.

"And to think, for years I avoided working with yeast [the leaven]. It's a living thing. I was nervous. I had a sense it would be so difficult. And yet it's forgiving. Baking this bread goes back to the days before instant yeast. I did a bread making course six years ago and was given some starter [leaven]. To create it and get it bubbling up and activated is a long process. But often someone will give you a starter. I keep mine in the fridge. If I didn't make bread every week I would have to feed it, with equal parts of flour and water. But baking as I do at least once a week, I feed it naturally."

Paxton says she only discovered the Tartine method when she heard about the book and bought it. "The bread I was taught to make had oil in it."

The loaves "with an old soul" that Robertson perfected are made with nothing more than flour, water and salt. This is the bread Paxton makes, following the outlined steps diligently but also with intuition as she kneads the dough then leaves it then kneads it again and refrigerates it and stretches it and leaves it and then stretches it again and puts it back into the fridge.

"The process? Really, the longer you spend on it the better the bread. Although most of the time you're just going back to it to do something brief and then leaving it to do its natural thing."

In developed countries around the world, along with the move away from fast, instant, processed food and back to fresh, local, traditional and preservative-free fare, there has been a resurgence in bread making. Where my friend lives, in Durban, to get good bread, you need to make it. In Europe, the San Francisco Bay Area and other foodie cities across the United States, you can buy good bread, real bread, freshly baked bread.

The popularity of "Tartine Bread," the book, reflects a growing global trend away from the long-time obsession with celebrity chefs to recipes the home cook can follow and make in her kitchen, according to Liz Thompson, publicity and marketing director at Phaidon Press, a London–based publisher. Thanks to the book, people around the world are fans of Tartine, the small super-popular bakery that stands anonymously — there is no big sign or name to identify it — on the corner of Guerrero and 18th Street in San Francisco's Mission District.

I stood for a good 30 minutes, with an American friend to keep me company, in a line that snaked slowly along the pavement outside. Nobody complained. Inside we ordered Croque Monsieur, served on two hefty slices of Tartine bread; a bread pudding that comes with whatever fruit is the freshest and most seasonal; and a frangipane tartlet. We nabbed a table with some ingenuity. There are not many inside and every morning the place is packed.

In return, I got to experience Tartine country loaf a-la-Carole when I shared the experience with her back in Durban. And the Tartine croissants she is in the process of perfecting that use the same dough of flour, water, salt and leaven as their base as the bread. Like good wine, classical music, opera, jazz — even bird watching — the more you know, the more layers you can recognize, the greater the appreciation.

I'm never going to bake this bread but hey, cut me another slice.

Check out the Chef's Corner for the recipe for South African farm roosterbrood.

Photos taken by Wanda Hennig at Tartine Bakery, San Francisco and in Carole Paxton's kitchen in South Africa.

Wanda Hennig

Wanda Hennig

California–based Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, a blogger and a life coach. full bio

Website: www.wandahennig.com

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