I’ve got a little problem folks. As much as I hate to admit it, I suffer from a virulent chronic condition. It’s an embarrassing subject for me, to be sure, but I think it’s time I come clean. You see, I’m not the only baker suffering from this debilitating disease.
This illness is widespread throughout the baking community. It’s become epidemic. A virtual plague.
And we’ll never find a cure if we can’t first address the problem. If we can’t even admit to it.
So I stand here before you today and confess . . .
“Yes, I suffer from Tartine Envy!”
Phew. Sure feels good getting that off my back.
Now, it may seem a bit ironic that I’m bringing this up right on the heels of my last post — you know, the one about how to make Tartine style bread. But it only makes sense. That video received more views in just its first 2 weeks than all my other videos combined could muster in their first 2 months.
That’s the power of the Tartine name.
And it’s why so many of us have packed our bags and jumped on the bandwagon.
So let’s talk a little bit about this troubling contagion. I’m happy to take the lead here, but be warned — I’m gonna ramble and things are about to get a little personal. Now then . . .
The pre-cursor to my current malady began as a mild case of admiration. Chad Robertson admiration.
I first read about him way back in the year 2000. I was new to bread baking and even newer to sourdough. I had just gotten my first job in a bakery — and was still struggling to shape a half-way decent loaf. That’s when I happened upon “The Bread Builders”, that monumental masterpiece by Dan Wing and Alan Scott. The Alan Scott.
Of course, at the time I didn’t know who any of these people were. I was just another green baker still wet behind the ears. But this book was life-changing for me. Seriously. It completely opened my eyes to another way of baking. Another way of thinking.
And the pièce de résistance of the book was the final chapter:
“A Day in the Life at the Bay Village Bakery.”
Words simply cannot describe the impact that one little chapter had on me. It was my Red Pill. If I read that book 50 times in the first few months after I bought it, then I must’ve read that chapter a hundred times more.
Those numbers are no lie.
I would read the book cover to cover. When I finished, I would re-read that final chapter 4 or 5 times. Then I would start the book from the beginning again. That cycle continued uninterrupted for months.
Pretty messed up, I know. But I was thoroughly obsessed. Enthralled.
That depiction of Chad Robertson’s little bakery and his daily baking routine completely swept me away. My fellow bakers thought me a total whack job. Rather than join them during breaks, I would sit down in a quiet corner and read that book. Every day. Every break. Without exception.
The problem, you see, is that I wanted to be Chad Robertson. Remember, this was long before Tartine. Outside of the regional market, and a small subset of the baking community, the world at large didn’t even know he existed.
But the lifestyle portrayed so well by that one little chapter — the lifestyle he represented — was perfection to my impassioned 24 year old mind. So simple. So idyllic.
Yeah, I was young and ignorant. I could only imagine the picturesque. I never considered all the hard work. All the struggle. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that at the time Chad Robertson epitomized the baker’s transcendent life in my view.
It’s an odd thing to idolize someone you’ve never met. It’s an even odder thing to idolize a baker who’s bread you’ve never even tasted.
Oh well. It is what it is.
Now let’s fast forward a decade or so. That overly simplistic, overly idealistic Trevor is gone. Somewhere along the road he lost his way. Young Happy-Go-Lucky Trevor was gradually supplanted by Bitter-Son-Of-A-Bitch Trevor.
Not a fun guy to be around.
Fortunately, things were looking up. After having quit baking for a couple years out of spite, I had recently rediscovered my bread passion. It came in a dream. Weird, I know. But the first thing I did was to whip out my old beat up copy of “The Bread Builders” and reread the entire thing. Cover to cover. And I even reread that final chapter a few times, just like in the old days. It was fun to reminisce.
But I was a bit wiser by that point.
No more did “A Day in the Life at the Bay Village Bakery” seem like the perfect charming lifestyle. Admirable, perhaps, but no longer quite for me. I had changed too much in those long years.
And that’s when I first heard about Tartine.
I was so out of the loop that I didn’t even know that Chad Robertson and his wife had left that little village bakery and opened up Tartine. I didn’t know that in those years Chad had become one of the most acclaimed bakers in the world. I’d had my nose to the bench and didn’t see any of the changes that were taking place in the world of baking.
So naturally, I rushed out to buy his book . . . and fell in love with the romance of baking all over again. It really is a wonderful book. And his passion for bread is contagious.
It would still be a little while before I attempted my first Tartine loaf, but at that point I was back in the thick of it. I’d quit my job and returned to life as a full time artisan baker. But this time, I had a bit more perspective. My youthful ignorance and idealism had been replaced by insight and pragmatism.
And as I delved back into the world of bread baking — through books (so many new bread books) and online — I came to realize a curious thing. Everyone was trying to make Tartine style bread! Everyone. The online forums were littered with questions of “how do I get open crumb,” and the answers were always the same — higher hydration!
As I dug deeper, I realized that Tartine had spawned a whole new generation of bakers. Many even opened their own bakeries and, of course, they specialized in Tartine style bread. The new mantra had become “Wet dough! Bold bake!”
This wasn’t just a trend. This was a paradigm shift.
A New Order had arisen, so to speak. And unfortunately, it left little room for alternative viewpoints. But it wasn’t some devious plot to squash dissent, it was just a matter of consensus. Majority rule. Whenever an impressionable new baker came into the fold, it was made clear from the outset that the best bread is always made from high hydration dough and baked dark.
Everybody knows that. Duh!
This then formed the new baker’s opinion and the cycle continued. What we’re talking about here is dogma. A one-sided discussion.
But here’s the rub . . .
Tartine bread is really hard to make! To make well, anyways.
But new bakers didn’t understand this. They didn’t understand that the dough they were making was challenging to handle even for experienced bakers. They didn’t realize that the bread in the pictures was made by one of the best bakers in the world. They just figured that if they followed the recipe they would end up with bread just as beautiful.
What no one told them was that baking is actually a skill. A craft. And like any craft, it takes a ton of practice before you achieve any sort of proficiency. And that goes double when working with such challenging dough as that found in Tartine.
This leads to a mismatch between expectations and reality. Discouragement and frustration ensue.
What I saw when I returned to baking was a cult of wet dough fanatics and a growing underclass of loyal, but struggling disciples.
So what did I do?
I joined the herd like the good little lemming I am!
I started focusing almost exclusively on high hydration doughs. Fortunately, I’d had many years of experience handling wet dough so this wasn’t as traumatic an experience for me as it is for most new bakers. Nevertheless, my imitation Tartine loaves never quite seemed to live up to the real thing.
Part of the problem was comparing my bread to Chad Robertson’s — I confess, I am no Chad Robertson. And the other part of the problem was something I’ve since come to call “Crumb Dysmorphia”.
Crumb Dysmorphia is the phenomenon by which a baker’s sense of his own crumb becomes distorted from reality. Whereas any other baker looking at the bread might see a nice open crumb, the baker who baked it sees nothing but a tight dense failure. It’s a common problem — and one of the most obvious symptoms of Tartine Envy.
So I went along and continued to bake my high hydration loaves. Always pushing for wetter and wetter dough, darker and darker bakes, and the holeyest of loaves. But in the back of my mind, I was uncomfortably aware that I was just part of the consensus — and therefore part of the problem.
And just what is that problem exactly?
The problem is elitism.
There. I said it.
When someone scoffs at another’s loaf of bread because it isn’t dark enough or holey enough, then that is elitism. When they look down at another’s loaf because they chose to add oil or milk or yeast, then that is elitism. If any bread that comes from a pan is derisively mocked, then that is elitism.
Elitists smugly dismiss any baker who isn’t part of the clique.
And if your bread doesn’t conform to their standards, then yours is by definition inferior.
So the problem is that whole swaths of bread styles are rejected out of hand. Instead of celebrating the diversity of bread, the new Cabal has declared that there is only one “true” bread. And then they proceed to define that platonic ideal in only the narrowest of terms — wet dough, big holes, near-burnt crust.
The Tartine loaf has become Idol.
It is the standard by which all other loaves are judged. And so, is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from Tartine Envy?
Now I’ve been known to dabble in hyperbole from time to time, so don’t take all this too seriously. But the point remains — we need to stop comparing ourselves to Chad Robertson and our bread to Tartine. Chad Robertson makes wonderful bread, but it’s his bread. We need to drop the envy and start doing our own thing, making our own bread — yours truly included.
And keep in mind, this is coming from the guy that once literally wanted to be Chad Robertson.
So if you like a lighter crust then bake it lighter. If you prefer to work with stiffer dough then mix it stiffer. If you don’t want massive holes then forget about ’em. These things are not flaws. Good bread is how YOU define it — don’t let others define it for you.
And Chad, if you’re reading this — I love you man. Just having some light-hearted fun.
Trevor J. Wilson
p.s. The picture up top can be found in it’s original non-artistic form at my Instagram account: @trevorjaywilson. It was made for the #BreadByEye challenge in which we’re not allowed to measure or weigh any ingredients. I documented the making of the loaf with video posts and you can follow the entire process from start to finish.