Leave it to San Francisco to disrupt the foundation of a well-balanced breakfast. Toast is beginning to go the way of chocolate, cheese, and coffee — becoming “artisanal.”
The Mill, a café and bakery near the Alamo Square neighbourhood of San Francisco, sells slices of toast that make the mushy slices of Wonder Bread from your childhood look like water crackers.
The Mill’s inch-and-a-half-thick slabs of doughy goodness are toasted on high and served with locally sourced butters and jams.
And they come at a price — a whopping $US4 for a single slice.
Not surprisingly, the media has not been kind to the trend’s proprietors, saying that it reaches “an incomprehensible level of pretentiousness.” We spoke with The Mill’s co-owner and toastmaster Josey Baker — yes, his real last name is Baker and his title is “toastmaster” — about why artisanal toast is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In summer 2011, Baker, a born and raised Vermonter, got an invitation from the founder of a local coffee chain, Four Barrel Coffee, to collaborate on a café near Alamo Square. Baker had previously been baking bread in his home kitchen and delivering loaves to bakeries, pizzerias, and grocers on his bike.
Baker’s answer to the collaboration question: “After I s— my pants I told him yes.”
As the café — which is now a sunbathed space with wood-beam ceilings and graphic prints on the wall — was being built, Baker ran a pop-up tent on location. They wanted to offer customers something to eat with a cup of coffee, and since Baker didn’t make cookies, croissants, or muffins, he brought his toaster from home and got to work.
“At that point, it wasn’t, like, ‘We’re going to become known for our toast.’ It was my way to eat bread, and people responded strongly to it,” Baker says.
The toast quickly picked up momentum, thanks in part to Baker’s simple combinations of toppings. “Growing up, I would eat toast with butter and cinnamon sugar,” Baker says. “It’s actually not very creative, but it did seem to strike a chord with people.”
The Country bread, which uses a blend of bread flour and whole wheat, sourdough culture, and sea salt, is prepared Baker’s way. Quickly after introducing the dish, it became The Mill’s first runaway hit.
Today, The Mill serves 400 slices of toast on the average weekend day, with as many as six four-slice toasters going at once. The menu has three toasts and a weekly special, based on seasonal ingredients. Customers can mix and match spreads, such as almond butter, strawberry and blackberry jam, maple syrup, and a housemade version of Nutella.
Each loaf takes about 48 hours to complete, and it all begins with the grain. A beautiful birchwood mill sits in a closet-sized room and grinds 300 pounds of whole grains into flour every day. They never sift out the germ, the part of the grain that contains many B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy fats, so the bread keeps its nutritive qualities.
The Mill uses a lot more water in its recipes that most bakeries, because a moister dough makes for a moister bread. This does make it more difficult to shape the loaf by hand, however.
Breads bake in the oven between 30 and 120 minutes depending on the size and type. They emerge crispy on the outside, with burnt ends adding texture and flavour, and soft and chewy on the inside. Finished loaves never sit out more than a day and a half.
While whole loaves are The Mill’s bestsellers, it’s the toast that draws people in.
One of the most popular items, the Dark Mountain Rye, uses 100% freshly milled whole rye grain and is chock full of sea salt and sesame, sunflower, and flax seeds. It’s topped with cream cheese, salt, and fresh ground pepper.
The bakers encourage substitutions and original combinations of toppings. This customer ordered the Whole Wheat Bird Bread, made with millet and sunflower seeds, slathered in almond butter and sprinkled with salt.
I ordered the No. 2, a slab of Whole Wheat Bird Bread with melted butter and strawberry jam, running me the aforementioned $US4. My mouth watered watching it come together at the toast bar.
The toasters looked like they would belong on my kitchen counter — nothing fancy. My piece of toast went in for about a minute before being flipped and cooked an additional minute.
Order up! The melted butter and strawberry jam ran over the sides, and it was beautiful.
At first, I was surprised by how difficult it was to cut the crust with a butter knife. Baker wasn’t kidding when he said he likes the ends burnt. But the crispness added a contrasting texture to the spongy, still warm center, making for a perfect combination.
The bread itself reminded me of the quintessential whole wheat — nutty, brown, and malty — and yet, it was a far cry from the factory-made multigrain bread I buy at the grocery store. It tasted whole and unprocessed, bursting with the natural flavours of millet and sunflower seeds.
With each bite, I sopped up strawberry jam run-off. The tartness enhanced rather than overwhelmed the bread.
As someone who pays more than $US4 for bagel sandwiches regularly, I found The Mill’s artisanal toast a worthwhile expense. It contained high-quality ingredients, sourced responsibly, and cost less than some sugar-coated pastries at Starbucks. Most significant, the toast reminded my taste buds of the big pancake breakfasts I shared with my family in New Hampshire. It tasted, well, wholesome.
I would gladly fork another $US4 again.
“For me, toast is comforting, unintimidating, and delicious. It’s the same experience for most people,” Baker says. “We take something very simple and try to nail every aspect of it … You’ve encountered [toast] a million times in your life, but this is the best you have had.”
You be the judge; visit The Mill, at 736 Divisadero St. in San Francisco.
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