Ask anyone in the Bay Area where to find the best loaf of bread, and chances are you'll hear one word: "Tartine." Founded in 2002 by Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt, the bakery has (deservedly) garnered what seems like infinite praise, and Robertson is often the primary person associated with San Francisco's artisanal bread renaissance. Now, there are plenty of other great bakers in the Bay: Despite the toast controversy, Josey Baker's dark, flavor-packed loaves are more than just a passing fad. In Oakland, Matt Kreutz slings wood-fired loaves for such fine institutions as A16, Fatted Calf, and Michael Mina. Further north in Berkeley, Eduardo Morell is quietly baking myriad whole grain breads and scones for Berkeley farmers market shoppers; his may be one of the best kept secrets in the East Bay.
While we should all be happy to eat a slice of bread from any of these bakers, let's take a closer look at two of the longer-running artisanal bakeries in the Bay. Which bakes a better classic country loaf?
Tartine Bakery: Country Loaf ($8.50 in store or $11 on Good Eggs for 2.2-pound loaf)
Tartine's country loaf is the bakery's most famous. This gigantic, naturally leavened batard was the first in Tartine's line-up, and was the product of years of testing by Robertson. While it's possible to try and make the bread at home (the recipe is the cornerstone of Robertson's cultish cookbook, Tartine Bread), it is far simpler to wait in line and shell out 11 bucks for a loaf at the bakery. Even better for those of us in the East Bay, it's now possible to order the bread online through Good Eggs, and have it delivered right to your door at dinner time.
It's almost a shame to tear into the deeply browned exterior. The bread crackles and shatters the second a knife hits the crust, sending a smattering of crumbs across the table. Inside, the crumb is open and moist, with a few large tunneling holes peppered through the middle. Small flecks of bran dot the otherwise soft, white interior. A generous bite reveals the recognizable zip of natural leavening and essential sweetness of the wheat. The crust is fully defined and separated from the crumb, with a faintly bitter taste and crisp texture. Toasting is a fine idea for day-old slices--it intensifies the sweetness of the bread and adds a delightful crunch to the otherwise chewy inside. But be careful with the toppings. Butter (and just about anything else) falls easily through those large holes.
Morell's Bread: Country Batard ($5.50 for 20-oz. loaf)
Morell's Bread has been around just as long as Tartine. Originally operating out of the Marin headlands, Morell had been schlepping his bread from the North Bay to sell it in Berkeley. Last fall, he made a permanent move to West Berkeley, where he continues to bake his exceptional whole-grain-focused breads. His country batard is much smaller and less dramatic in appearance than Tartine's, but, with 50% whole grain flour in the mix, it packs a punch.
Like Robertson, Morell exclusively uses a sourdough starter for his breads, giving the interior a distinctive tang. The higher percentage of whole grain flour yields a denser, tighter crumb -- and Morell's bread is nothing like those squat, brick-like whole wheat loaves at old-school natural food stores. Instead, its smaller holes give way to a slightly moist crumb, infused with the marvelously nutty flavor of the wheat. Even bringing a slice up towards the nose reveals the fresh scent of the grain. Stick the a slice of bread in the toaster and the fragrance will permeate the room. Unlike Tartine's open structure, Morell's tighter crumb more readily accepts a smear of butter while retaining its characteristic flavor. Morell's crust is a bit less pronounced than Tartine's; it blends more readily into the structure of the crumb, and a bite of both (even when toasted) has less textural contrast.
As always, it's a close call, but one bread has to win.
Winner: Tartine (by a slim margin)