San Francisco's Boudin Bakery serves up a taste of history in each bite

From: San Jose Mercury - Written by Daniel Brown November 23, 2015 12:00 PM

SAN FRANCISCO -- From a railing just above Boudin Bakery's bustling workplace, Fernando Padilla signals for one of his fellow bakers to toss him a chunk of dough.

The softball-sized glob settles softly into Padilla's hands, and he pulls it apart and holds it to his nose for a deep inhale. "I love that smell," he says.

This is the special stuff, the historic stuff. It's a piece of the so-called mother dough, the wild yeast starter that has gone into every of loaf of sourdough bread baked by Boudin since 1849. Padilla is Boudin's master baker, and it's his job to make sure the mother dough endures.

"This is like Coit Tower, the cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge," Padilla says, rolling the dough in his hand. "Boudin sourdough right here at the Fisherman's Wharf is iconic. It's San Francisco history. If we run out of it, we shut the doors."

To Boudin, this dough is the greatest invention since before sliced bread (which came along in 1928). The bakery was born in 1849, when an immigrant named Isidore Boudin, who hailed from a family of master bakers in Burgundy, France, kneaded a hardy dough and formed it into the shape of a traditional French loaf.

Even after the introduction of commercial yeast in 1868, Boudin Bakery continued to make bread the way bakers had done for centuries. They set aside a portion of the previous day's dough to provide the natural yeast for leavening the next batch. To this day, there's a trace of the Gold Rush era in each bite.

Boudin's mother dough even survived the great earthquake of 1906. When the quake struck at 5:12 a.m. that April 18, setting off fires across San Francisco, Louise Boudin tossed some mother dough into a wooden bucket and fled the scene just before the bakery burned to the ground.

Padilla understands that, in case of emergency, he'd be called upon to do the same. He apprenticed under former Boudin owner "Papa Steve" Giraudo. And late in Giraudo's life, when he knew his health was failing, he handed the reins to Padilla.

"He sat me down and told me all the things he wanted me to take care of, especially the mother dough," says Padilla, who is in his 36th year at the bakery. "He said to me, 'Don't worry about the ups and downs of the business. But if you take care of the bread and the mother dough, they will take care of you.' And it's true."

Padilla now passes down such lessons to his underlings. He teaches classes for Boudin employees -- they call it Sourdough University -- to make sure everyone understands the history at their fingertips.

Bakers also learn the science behind why San Francisco sourdough tastes different (and better) than anywhere else on earth. The quick version: San Francisco's foggy weather creates an ideal environment for the wild yeast and the lactobacilli in sourdough. The ingredients thrive in what Padilla called "a symbiotic colony," and things work especially well close to San Francisco Bay. The taste simply can't be replicated in other parts of the country.

Padilla can talk like a professor, with his references to carbon dioxide, bacteria, enzymes, fermentation, acidity and pH levels. But when he talks about the mother dough, he sounds more often like a doting uncle.

"She loves to eat the sweetness of the flour. ... She eats one type of sugar, which is maltose, which is the only sugar the wild yeast can eat. ... You need to keep the mother healthy so she can keep having babies and babies and babies."

Padilla started working at Boudin when he was 17. Now, he oversees the operation that has locations all over California, including in places such as Cupertino, Santa Rosa, Vacaville and Disneyland.

Those places get mother dough, too. Between the third and fourth week of each month, Padilla will ship a box of 30 or 40 pounds from the flagship. When it arrives, the other locations are instructed to burn the old stuff and "start a whole new one so that they have a strong injection of the San Francisco starter," Padilla says.

In all, the Fisherman's Wharf location pumps out 20,000 pounds of dough a day.

"Being able to keep this alive and healthy, it's amazing," Padilla says. "It's history. It's part of San Francisco."