Cookbook Review: Tartine Bread

The sight is familiar to anyone who has ever wandered down San Francisco's 18th Street corridor early in the evening: Neighborhood folks--and not a few commuters--lined up along the sidewalk outside of Tartine. They leave work early and take long detours home just to snap up the hissing-hot loaves of bread with bubbly brown crusts that shatter to reveal fragrant, fantastically creamy insides. The loaves emerge after 5 p.m., and when you drive or bus past, you almost imagine a rock concert might be set to take place. But the draw is just flour, water, air, and time.

Tartine shares a block with Bi-Rite, the stellar, pint-sized grocery and community center, and Delfina, one of the city's most beloved Italian restaurants, but somehow its fans trump theirs in rabid dedication.

These same devoted patrons will be overjoyed to get a whiff of Tartine Bread, co-owner Chad Robertson's new Chronicle Books-published tract ($40).

With its symbolically puffy jacket cover and Eric Wolfinger's beautiful, contemplative photos littered through the text, Tartine Bread appropriately feels as lush and potent as its subject matter. The content follows suit. Here, recipes are not merely lists of ingredients and preparations broken down into steps; they are stories. Robertson apprenticed with great artisan bakers in Europe, but didn't find the loaf he was looking for until he built his own bakery near Tomales Bay at the age of 23 and began experimenting with different starters.

The intersection of science and intuition, bread is articulated as a way of life, a state of mind--sort of like surfing, to which the author and his photographer implicitly draw parallels. "Before the study of microbiology, bakers understood the subtleties of the process. . .they understood fermentation in relation to the rhythms of their own lives," Robertson writes, "it is necessarily the same with modern artisan bakers." At the same time, Robertson recognizes apartment kitchens lack the resources of bakeries, and adjusts his recipes to suit the tools everyday gourmands have at their disposal.

While this book is a wonderful guide to making bread--and pastries, and pizzas, and anything for which sturdy croutons or crumbs might be required--it's also a lovely portrait of a culture. Try baking Robertson's olive oil brioche, tackle the potato focaccia, dive into a universe of seasonal panzanellas, but at the same time, read about the experiences that inspired him--and hear about the author's friends who've parlayed their own bread-ly adventures into entrepreneurial pursuits. The tales are poignant and uplifting. Well-leavened, yet filling.

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