Tartine baker Chad Roberston and Cowgirl Creamery's Sue Conley. Diana Jou photo.

Tartine’s baker Chad Robertson revealed a cruel irony Wednesday night: His wife is gluten-intolerant. She can’t eat his bread.

If you’ve tasted one of Robertson’s loaves, you know that’s a travesty. His is no ordinary bread: It has a crackly russet crust and a satin interior that’s chewy and light, with an earthy wheat taste and a gentle tang.

Tartine’s country loaf is so good it has to be reserved three days in advance. It’s so good that it won Roberston and his wife, Tartine pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, a James Beard award in 2008. But Robertson, interviewed by Kim Severson of the New York Times as part of City Arts & Lectures, told the audience he’s ready to explore new bread turf.

But first he had to write it all down — the country loaf recipe takes up 29 pages of his cookbook “Tartine Bread,” which came out last year. “That sort of allowed me to move on,” he said.

Now he’s experimenting with ancient grains like Einkorn wheat and old ryes that fell by the wayside in favor of modern breeds that give higher yields and are easier to thresh. But primitive grains have a rich taste, and many gluten-intolerant people, like Prueitt, find they can eat them without getting sick.

“Instead of completely forgetting about wheat, we can bring back old varieties,” he said, adding that he hopes increased interest in California-grown grain could inspire a cottage industry of heritage grain growers and millers.

Robertson, surfer-serene and serious on stage, looks like a throwback himself. His style is a mashup of Amish farmer and cool kid — mega-mutton chops, hair plastered to his head like a skull cap, turned-up jeans and boat shoes. He would look great in tintype.

Roberston loves old-school fermented foods, and they’ll play a central role in Bar Tartine’s revamped menu. That’s a bit of a surprise, since Robertson hired his new chef, Nicolaus Balla, on the strength of his Japanese cooking at Nombe and O Izakaya Lounge.

“We hired a great Japanese chef, but he wanted to do Hungarian,” Robertson said.

Turns out, Balla was itching to explore the cuisine of the Eastern European side of his family. Expect more fermented foods, fresh dairy and a greater emphasis on fresh produce with Balla at the helm. Sausage might play a role, too. Roberston admitted he brought a suitcase-full home from a recent trip to Hungary.

Roberston also shed some light on the eternal wait for a loaf of bread. He explained that Tartine’s oven is full of pastries until early afternoon. The sweets bake at a much lower temperature than bread, and it takes two hours to fire the oven up to bread temperature, so they don’t start baking until 4 p.m.

The wait will be shorter once Tartine opens its new bread and sandwich shop in a couple of months. For now, Roberston has this tip: “Everyone comes on Saturday morning at 10. If you come on a Wednesday at 4 you can get a spot, you can hang out, there’s tons of bread.”

Bridget Huber

Bridget writes about community groups, non-profits and collectives for Mission Loc@l.

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  1. What a bummer. My partner and his twin sister [ glutenfreetwins.com ] were diagnosed with celiac disease 5 years ago. Hopefully this news will inspire Elisabeth to master gluten-free bread making. I think Mariposa Bakery in Oakland is doing it best – their rosemary focaccia is pretty awesome.

  2. Being gluten intolerant is not a a tragedy! We who suffer from the effects of eating wheat are waking up everyone to the perils of modern wheat production and with its focus on unnaturally high gluten content.

    I look forward to Tartine’s exploration of gluten free baking. There is a lot of delight here in gluten-free land.

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