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.
Sourdough bread traces its origins to ancient Egypt and is common in parts of Europe. It became a staple in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Gold miners valued it for their camps because of its durability, and the relative ease of obtaining yeast. Although many different kinds of starter (a dough-like mixture of fermented flour and water containing bacteria and wild yeast) are suitable for making sourdough, specific species of bacteria (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) and wild yeast (Candida milleri) have been identified as the predominant cultures in local breads. Sourdough starters were carefully kept and maintained by each bakery as a "mother sponge".
By 1854 there were 63 bakeries in San Francisco. The Boudin Bakery was founded in 1849 by Isidore Boudin, son of a family of master bakers from Burgundy, France. Boudin applied French baking techniques to the fermented-dough bread. The bakery continues to use the starter which originated in the 19th century. Parisian, a popular bread in San Francisco for many years, started in 1856. Parisian supplied San Francisco's oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill, for 141 years until the bakery closed. In Oakland, Toscana started in 1895 and Colombo in 1896. Also in 1896, the Larraburu Brothers bakery, located at 365 3rd Avenue, was started by two Basque brothers who immigrated to the U.S. from France, bringing their starter with them.
A generation of decline and consolidation, starting after World War II, led to inferior bread in San Francisco. The mid-20th century saw Americans increasingly eating 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 complain, "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.
Among the prominent post-war sourdough bakeries in the bay area were Larraburu and Boudin in San Francisco, Parisian, Colombo and Toscana in Oakland, Wedemeyer in South San Francisco, Pisano in Redwood City, Baroni and Venetian.
In 1969, two researchers at the Western Regional Research Center of the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Albany, Calif., Leo Kline and Frank Sugihara, began a study of sourdough bread from five bakeries in the San Francisco area: Parisian, Toscana, Colombo, Baroni and Larraburu. They identified the wild yeast responsible for leavening the bread (Candida milleri) and discovered the theretofore-unknown lactobacillus that gives the bread its unique flavor (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis).
Some small producers from the Gold Rush era kept the sourdough tradition and continued to produce bread. Steven Giraudo, a 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 were not small and 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 outlets at Disneyland and Fisherman's Wharf. San Francisco French Bread Company bought both Colombo and Toscana, and replaced the hearth ovens used for handmade sourdough with high capacity ovens. Before its demise on November 21, 2012, 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.
Bread in Southern California
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Bread bakeries in Los Angeles include La Brea Bakery.
Artisan bread movement
The artisan bread movement represents a return to small production of hand-made loaves. It is in some ways a return to older techniques, but is 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.
In 1970 Narsai David, 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 bread making. 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."
Modern era companies
San Francisco Bay Area
Acme Bread Company is an early, influential modern artisan bread maker. In 1977 Founder Steve Sullivan, a student at University of California, Berkeley who was earning money as a busboy at Chez Panisse, bought Elizabeth David's 1977 book on bread during a trip to Europe, and began trying to recreate the bread he had tried in Paris on his return. In 1979 he became in-house bread maker at Chez Panisse, when the Cheese Board Collective could not keep up with demand. Jeremiah Tower, then head chef, encouraged Sullivan to study breadmaking at Narsai David's bakery. He later left to launched Acme with his wife Susan, half funded by Doobie Brothers guitarist Patrick Simmons. Encouraged by advice from a winery in Bandol, they obtained Acme's starter culture from yeast of wine grapes they found at Sullivan's father's vineyard in Napa.
Semifreddi's Bakery is an Alameda-based artisan bakery that serves the entire San Francisco Bay Area. In 1984, Eric and Carol Sartenaer, ex-Cheese Board Collective members, opened shop in a 450-square-foot “hole in the wall” bakery in Kensington, California. In January 1987, Barbara Frainier (one of their first employees) took over the business with her husband Michael Rose. In 1988, Tom Frainier (Barbara’s brother) joined the Semifreddi’s team. Tom, who holds an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, left an upper management position at Clorox to join his sister and brother in law, both UC Berkeley alumni, in the bread and pastry-making business. When asked about his exit strategy, Frainier replies, “death.” After Frainier took the helm as President, CEO, and self-proclaimed, “Chief Boot Licker,” Semifreddi’s rapidly expanded throughout the San Francisco Bay, while maintaining its emphasis on baking high-quality, European-style artisan bread and pastries.
Many other artisan bakers have followed in the steps of Tassajara, Cheese Board, Narsai's, Acme, and Semifreddi's, often started by veterans of other local bakeries and of Chez Panisse. 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. 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", which was purchased by Starbucks coffee to provide baked goods for its outlets. Starbucks plans to expand the chain nationally.
One interesting trend is the resurgence and expansion of good sourdough bread companies that follow the model of the pre-Interstate Brands Parisian, Colombo, and Toscana. They are of medium size, deliver to both artisan markets and large chains like Safeway or Nob Hill, and seek reasonable expansion. A good example is Sumano's Bakery in Watsonville, California, near Monterey. They produce a classic sourdough loaf with wheat flour, water, starter,and sea salt. Another, which is smaller and delivers only to small artisan markets but which will ship, is the 80-year old Arcangeli Grocery Company / Norm's Market in historic Pescadero California famous for their Artichoke Garlic Bread among 40 other unique artisan breads, San Luis Sourdough in San Luis Obispo was founded in 1983, and makes sourdough bread with only the basic ingredients. In 1987, it was named California's Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration. They were acquired by Sara Lee in 2001.
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- Acme Bread Company site
- metropolisbaking.com — Metropolis Baking, official site
- artisanbakers.com — Artisan Bakers, official site
- arizmendibakery.com — Arizmendi Bakery, official site
- Toscana bakery article
- Toscana bakery Oakland
- Parisian bakery closure August, 2005
- Steven Giraudo (Boudin) obit
- Interstate Bakeries
- Interstate Bakeries