This post is also posted on our blog, Wanton Flavours, with more photos
"Fresh cracked crab with Boudin's round 'dark bake' sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of California Chardonnay is still the quintessential SF meal." (Herb Caen)
Think sourdough UK-style: an artisan baker hidden away under railway arches in East London serving a small but enthusiastic clientele. It's a different world in San Francisco, where Boudin (pronounced Boo - Deen) has moved sourdough bread into the mainstream in ways that are unimaginable here. In true USA fashion, it's as much about working the brand as kneading the dough.
The mission statement is loud and clear, and printed on the window of the massive downtown bakery / restaurant / museum located in the prime tourist location that is Fisherman's Wharf.
Boudin has been here from the start, even before California became part of the United States. The family arrived from France in 1849 at the start of the Gold Rush, marrying their French expertise as bakers with the local miners' sourdough leaven, a fusion of old European and pioneer American knowhow still obvious today in their sourdough baguettes.
The bakery has followed the vicissitudes of the city and nearly collapsed after the devastating of 1906. Louise Boudin scooped the mother dough (then a mere 50+ years old) into a bucket as she rushed out of the burning building, thus saving the business. From these humble beginnings, Boudin has evolved into a modern high-output bakery that has entwined its image with that of San Francisco itself. Now the ubiquitous clam chowder is best served in a "bowl" made from a hollowed out sourdough loaf.
Boudin turns out sourdough loaves on an industrial scale to serve the city's hunger for its iconic loaf. In addition, batches of the mother dough are sent around the country to offshoot bakeries, though these have to be renewed every two months as the lactobacillus that creates the SF taste begins to wane if away from the specific local flora and fauna that sustain it.
The look and flavour of the Boudin sourdough are distinctive, with an unusual dark orange-red surface that is quite heavily blistered. Initially, the crisp, chewy crust and soft, slightly waxy crumb are familiar enough; then that distinctive and powerful sour tang kicks in. It is a taste that matches seafood and cheese especially well, but also works with just a slab of slightly salted butter and a bottle of Californian sparkling wine.
There are Boudin stores across the city as well as elsewhere in the states. "Entrepreneur" may be a French word, but there is something particularly American about the way this brand and product have been developed and positioned at the heart of San Franciscan consciousness. You can find a Boudin cafe in Macy's (Union Square). Or on Pier 39 (prime tourist territory). Despite fellow travellers' mockery, you can pick up a loaf or two at the aiport to sustain you when you return home.