Outing the Dutch
As with coffee, the tradition of quality bread making has been a consistent of San Francisco culinary culture since the first 49er mixed flour and water together to ferment, and the first Frenchman opened the first business to bake it.
That Frenchman was Isidore Boudin, who opened San Francisco's first bakery in 1849 on Dupont Street, or what is now Grant Street in North Beach. By 1856 there were over 63 bakeries in the city, or one bakery for every 900 residents. By this time, large swaths of San Francisco had burned down multiple times, not by forgetful bakers, but by thieves and criminals. If you think running a small business is hard now, you have no idea.
These bakeries were the first to produce the famed San Francisco Sourdough, a variety of sourdough bread unique to the Bay Area and whose reputation as a fine bread is known the world over. When most people think of San Francisco bread, they don't think of walnut rye or herb slab or the nine-grain concoctions you see on display in some of the City's finest bakeries – they think Sourdough.
But what if I told you there is another type of bread that is just as prevalent, and just as loved, in the San Francisco Bay Area – and in it's own way, just as unique? It's called Dutch Crunch, and it's reputation as a Bay Area sandwich bread is matched only by sourdough.
Like your typical sourdough loaf or baguette, Dutch Crunch didn't originate here, although the name probably did. In the Netherlands, it's known as Tijgerbrood and sold in the UK as "Tigerbread". It gets its name from the color and texture of the crust, which is striped with dark brown crunchy spots with light blond bread peaking out from underneath. The crust gets its flavor and texture from washing the top prior to baking with a mixture rice flour, butter, yeast, sugar, and salt. The final product is a mildly sweet, light and fluffy white loaf with a somewhat crunchy, savory crust.
The first time I had a sandwich with this bread, I fell in carb-love. Being a transplant from somewhere else, I felt lucky that I could see and taste this wonderful bread with the unspoiled expectation of an outsider. Of course when you're new to a place, everything seems so unfamiliar that you just lose track of what's different from the place you left and where you are now. Pretty soon, you just take for granted that things are like how they are – until something reminds you that, no, things and stuff and life outside of the Bay Area are – in fact – not the same.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that, outside of the Bay Area, Dutch Crunch bread is relatively unknown – not only in California, but in the rest of the United States as well. What remains a mystery to me is not so much how or when it got here, but why it never really left.
From what I gather, Dutch Crunch bread was introduced in the Bay Area (no, not by Dutch immigrants) sometime in the 1960s or 1970s and quickly caught on with specialty bakers and delis. According to the owner of the Italian-French Bakery in North Beach, he seems to remember it first being introduced by the now-defunct Parisian Bakery, which until recently had been the second oldest bakery in San Francisco. At the time Dutch Crunch was introduced, the Parisian was owned by Boudin Bakery. However after a quick survey of Boudin's current bread line, it doesn't appear that they sell it.
The Italian-French Bakery
I called up a few of the best and well-established sandwich makers in San Francisco and the Peninsula to ask where their Dutch Crunch comes from. Darby Dan's buys their Dutch Crunch from the venerable Wedemeyer Bakery, started in 1936 in San Francisco. If you've ever been anywhere downtown San Francisco you are probably familiar with Wedemeyer's delivery trucks, which drop off freshly baked breads to many of the downtown cafés and delis.
The person at Little Lucca in South San Francisco didn't know where they got theirs, while the guy at Colombo's in Pacifica would only say they get their Dutch Crunch from a local bakery; "it's a trade secret". You go, Colombo's!
Even more mysterious was the owner at Roxie Food Center in the Mission who – after wanting to know "who is this?" – would only say his Dutch Crunch is made by his "brother-in-law". Yeah, riiiigggghhhtt.
Great, old Italian delis like Lucca in the Mission and Molinari's (and their sister store, Mastrelli's) still keep it in the community and buy their Dutch Crunch from the Italian-French Bakery, which started producing it 25 years ago. Today you can walk into the bakery and walk out with a loaf of Dutch Crunch for $1.60 that will feed several people.
The Italian-French is a great, old, neighborhood meeting place and piece of small-town, Old World charm in San Francisco. The ladies who work there have an undeserved reputation for being curt, which may or may not be true, because I've never experienced it. However, you also must realize that the Italian-French is at ground zero for the close-knit (Italian) culture of North Beach; a culture that, to some extent, is insular but which has to sometimes interact with tourists and looky-loos (that would be me).
The bakery, ovens and all, has been around 100 years and so have the ladies (okay, that was cheap). All kidding aside, it's a wonderful place to buy all kinds of baked goods and it holds its own against other neighborhood competitors.
However, to really get the full Italian-French Bakery Dutch Crunch Experience, you must go to a real Italian deli and order something up. While there are lots of great delis in the hood (like Palermo), I'm keeping it old school today and heading over to Molinari's.
I've had a love/hate relationship with Molinari Delicatessen in the past stemming from the long lines and (occasionally) the service, but I still keep coming back -if only for the best deal on the best salame in the Bay Area. Actually, part of the reason I like Molinari's so much has to do with the fact that they've purposely been confusing non-Italians with the spelling of "salami" long before it was cool and trendy.
There are several things you need to know before stepping up to the counter to order a sandwich at Molinari. The first is that you need to take a number, and thank goodness because I hate unorganized counter service.
Second, after you grab a number/ticket, you must pick out your own sandwich bread, which is already cut and sitting in a bin near the back of the store. If you want to be polite, use the metal tongs provided to pick out your bread, or use your hands if you want to keep it real (nasty).
I use my hands.
After fumbling around the bin, touching every single piece of bread before you get to the one you want, present the bread (Dutch Crunch, in this case) to the man behind the counter after he calls your number. Today I ordered the North Beach Special ($7.25), which is loaded with prosciutto, provolone, sun-dried tomatoes, and sweet (but spicy) red peppers. It's pricey for a sandwich, but please...just take a look at it.
There's a lot of good food here, and for the price it sure beats some of the rabbit food you pay $10 for around these parts. Best of all is the bread. This bread is so buttery on top and crunchy, plus it has a little of that sweet flavor going on, that I feel no remorse in wrecking my low-carb diet plan. If you're going to consume white bread, you might as well go all out with a big sandwich made with Dutch Crunch.
(The reason for this link is just because. However, I guess I was mistaken when I said previously that the good weather had passed us by. Get out and enjoy the weekend!)