I knew of Steve Sullivan before last weekend’s L’Atelier du Pain Serie at the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI). One of my kids used to live in Berkeley and, whenever I visited, I would go get bread at Acme, Steve’s bakery on San Pablo. In later years I always stopped by his smaller bakery in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, drawn by the memory of an improbable beetroot-and-goat-cheese sandwich on baguette I bought there for lunch one day, the type of sandwich that leads you to believe that perfection is indeed of this world.
I knew that Steve Sullivan was Acme’s founder and owner and that he was immensely respected and well liked in the world of bread. At his Berkeley location, the line stretched out the door most times I went there, especially in the morning. In fact I always felt that, just like in a Parisian boulangerie, I had to know exactly what I wanted and ask for it fast because anything else would annoy everyone both behind the counter and behind me.
So I used to devour the display of breads with my eyes while still queueing, wishing I could buy it all, making various lists in my head for the few seconds it took me to reach the next free salesperson, then quickly settling for two or three loaves which I would reverently bring back to the house. Much swooning ensued. The bread was both gorgeous and tasty, deeply rooted in tradition. Clearly the work of a master. And at SFBI last weekend, I got to see the master himself mix, shape and bake. How cool is that!
For the purpose of this workshop Steve had chosen to make a fendu (literally a bread that had been split). Pain fendu is a pretty bread that Acme makes everyday for Alice Waters‘ restaurant, Chez Panisse. Based on a poolish and a mixed starter, it isn’t as assertive as the white levain Acme also makes for the restaurant.
With the same dough Steve made a few gorgeous couronnes bordelaises (crown-shaped breads from the Bordeaux region of France) and tabatières (loaves in the shape of a tobacco pouch) as well as fougasses (bread in the shape of a ladder) and other decorative breads.
Steve talked as he worked, mostly in answer to questions from the audience, both in the room and over the Internet.
What’s the protein level in Acme’s flour?
Acme’s flour has a protein level that varies between 11.2 and 11.6%. But that percentage doesn’t describe its extensibility, or say how prone it is to fermentation, and those are things you need to have in balance also. The protein level is only one factor among others.
What types of flour go into Acme’s starters?
- Levain starter: whole wheat flour
- White starter: type 55 white flour
- Rye starter: rye flour
Acme switched to organic flour in 1999. Prior to making that change, Steve was already curious about the type of wheat that went into his flour. He had familiarized himself with the meaning, purpose and results of the various tests conducted among others by the California Wheat Commission, and he knew what he needed to discuss with the farmers.
“For their part, farmers who were growing organic wheat at that time wanted to make sure they could get a good price for it. They typically had on-farm storage for their wheat and they typically knew what they had planted, so that unlike a big flour cooperative or people going straight to a mill where you had to guess at the components [of the flour you were getting] based on what was planted and in which proportions in the county where most of the wheat came from, you could actually tell.”
Michel Suas, who was moderating the Q&A session, said that the key was to learn to work together. In Europe, there is a tendency to connect farmer, miller and baker more closely than here in the United States. Both education and communication are important. Compared to when the artisan bread movement started, great progress have been in the quality of the flour available to bakers today. There is also a lot of knowledge out there to help a baker figure out what he or she should ask for from the farmer and the miller. One excellent example is the research done at the Bread Lab at Washington State University.
Keeping bread affordable while paying the farmers a living wage
Switched to organic flour didn’t mean increased labor costs or a change in process. So even though, at the time, organic wheat flour cost maybe 25 to 30% more than conventional wheat flour, the increased cost to Acme was actually much lower. At the time, the price per bushel for conventional wheat was $5 to $7 and the typical premium for organic wheat was about 40%. So if you were paying 15 cents a pound for conventional bread flour, you might be paying 20 to 22 cents a pound for organic bread flour. “We only needed to increase our prices by 7% and that covered the cost.”
For the last three years, that premium has been in the 400% range, which illustrates both ends of the spectrum. Today price per bushel for conventional wheat is $5.50 a bushel, which is about what it was in 1990. In other words, the conventional market doesn’t pay the farmers a fair price for what they are producing while organic farmers are taking the opportunity to make a decent living.
Although the price has come down a bit recently, the organic baker is still paying a huge premium compared to what it used to be. But keeping bread prices in check has become a bit trickier particularly if you are using a labor-intensive process. Practically all of Acme’s breads are hand-formed and today that is a pretty expensive proposition.
How do you adjust to variations in flour or other factors?
The beauty of being a baker is that you are constantly being challenged. You need to in control of whatever the dough is going to give you. The trick within the context of a bakery that is operating 24 hours a day is to find ranges of variability of temperature, fermentation, hydration, texture, that the various staff bakers are likely to encounter on a daily basis through the combination of variability of materials, of environment and their own and their coworkers’ errors and translate those into a system for them to follow.
“At the bakery, we have a sense of what temperature works for the process we want for our doughs. We work backwards from there. We have a big table for every dough and every starter and what target temperatures we want for them and what the corresponding water temperature is and in the mixing book we have a series of adjustments. If temperature is off by one degree, adjust by this %, by two degrees, adjust by this %. The tables indicate when and how to change the fermentation, add water, do extra folds, etc. As a bakery expands, you need to systematize the instinctual responses you might make yourself so that someone else will know what to do.”
How big is Acme?
When Acme first started in 1983, it made one hundred and fifty loaves a day. It hired its first regular employee besides Steve himself, his wife and the occasional family member helping out when production went beyond a thousand breads a day. Today Acme runs twenty-four hours a day seven days a week and uses about eight million pounds of flour per year (which translates into roughly eight million loaves if you average the various weights of the different breads.)
Although Acme just opened a brand new, much larger facility (the bakery is going from 4,000 to 20,000 sq.ft,) it isn’t expanding its business anymore. The new facility will allow it to start baking much later at night, thus providing fresher bread to the customers who were getting the earliest bread. It will also make it easier to maintain and repair the equipment. Right now though is a transition period where both the old and the new bakeries are in operation and that is unsustainable.
“From the beginning, our goal has been to not adapt the dough to the equipment but to consider our bread to be handmade and to only use equipment where it didn’t compromise the quality of the bread. So we use little twenty-part dividers and guys molding bread by hand rather than more automated processes. Now there are automated machines that can divide bread pretty nicely and we may experiment with it now that we have more room. Our new bakery has a robotic loader for the oven for instance. It allows more people to do the job with less risk for repetitive injuries or stress.”
Do you autolyse your doughs?
“We need to do our mixes every half-hour. so almost of our mixes have at least ten minutes in the middle before we add the salt but in lots of cases the leavening is already there. So it isn’t really an autolyse. The breads that have only a solid levain in them where the levain is almost the same texture as the final dough do get a real autolyse prior to adding the levain. Some doughs where we have a bit more time get a 25-minute autolyse.”
Do you have recommendations for someone looking to open a bakery?
These days it is harder to open a bakery in a place where they don’t already have one. Acme had a clearer field when it started. The ideal is to both make good bread and provide to the community something that it needs.
Do you have recommendations for home bakers?
- Watch your temperatures;
- Always weigh your flour;
- Put quarry tiles in your oven (on second shelf from bottom) and put a cast iron skillet at bottom (to pour water in for steaming);
- Or use a Dutch oven (to provide mass and moisture);
- Preheat your oven for 90 minutes prior to baking.
And now on to tasting the fendu! The goal of Steve’s demo was to show how a baker can showcase the sweetness of the grain using white flour.
The bread has indeed that sweet and complex fermented flavor that only a poolish can impart. It also has what Steve calls a “cheerio flavor” due to the heavily fermented straight dough that went into the mixed starter. There is a lovely balance between the two.
It had been a long time since I had tasted a really good non-sourdough white bread. Even in France you are just as likely to be disappointed as happy. The fendu‘s crackling and caramelized crust brought out the delicate tenderness and stretchiness of the crumb in a way that reminded me that there was indeed a time and place for every bread under the sun (I am talking real bread here, not the thing they sell under that name in too many grocery stores both here and overseas.)
To sum up, I am a huge fan of the flavor and nutritional benefits of whole grains but I sure could get used to eating Steve’s fendu…
Those of us who have taken Artisan Bread classes at SFBI may have been taught how to shape fendus, among other decorative breads. Michel wants us to know that besides the shape, there is no relationship between the breads we made and the ones Steve made. The dough we mixed in class was a teaching dough. It had none of the complexity this one had. In fact Steve went through countless trials and errors before finding the dough that checked all of his and Alice Waters’ boxes.
Michel’s word of caution made my day. I distinctly remember thinking when tasting these teaching breads that there is truth to the adage that beauty is only skin-deep.