“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” – M.F.K. Fischer
If line cooks are the heart of a kitchen then bread bakers must certainly be the soul. Great bread, not simply good bread, is absolutely essential in a respectable restaurant today. This was not always the case in America; in fact the concept of beautiful, crusty, artisanal bread is relatively new in this country. To my way of thinking restaurants became truly noteworthy once bread became important. Today, great bread is a critical piece in a chef’s bag of essential ingredients for success and the difference between a satisfactory guest experience and one that they talk about for weeks after. A chef cannot really build a first class restaurant without superior bread.
Let’s look back just a few years to see how much American palates have grown. Post World War II – America, in the eyes of a “Leave it to Beaver” utopian world was infatuated with the new marvels of food science. Pillow white and soft bread that was now delivered to your door – pre-sliced and ready to use. I can remember the days when bread, milk and other pastries were delivered to your door just like the daily paper. That bread in its protective plastic bag, soft as a pillow and more body than crust was the product that we all grew up on. It was what we became accustomed to and what we interpreted as good bread. I even remember insisting that my mother cut off the thin semblance of a crust before I would attempt to eat this “marshmallow” product.
Looking forward, this is what Julia Child had to say about this American staple:
“How can a nation be great if their bread tastes like Kleenex?” – Julia Childs
It would be Julia and her friend James Beard who would begin to change the U.S. palate for “real bread”, although it would take many years.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” – James Beard
WONDER BREAD (builds strong bodies in 12 different ways) was the bread of choice for decades. It represented, at the time, what America was all about and relegated the palate of U.S. citizens to an acceptance of mediocrity both in flavor and nutrition.
“Several advances in the nutrition and baking process were made during this decade. In 1941, Wonder Bread was involved in a government-supported move to enrich white bread with vitamins and minerals to improve nutrition. Known as the “quiet miracle,” bread enrichment nearly eliminated the diseases Beriberi and Pellagra and brought essential nutrients to people who previously could not afford nutritious foods. At the same time Wonder introduced a revolutionary new way of baking that eliminated holes in bread.”
Restaurants, particularly larger hotel operations had originally built bake shops and hired experienced bakers (typically European) to take care of their breads, pastries and elaborate desserts, but as the America palate changed and the cost of operating these portions of the restaurant kitchen became cost prohibitive, most operators eliminated or cut back on the size and scope of the baking operation. They began to purchase product from outside commercial bakeries to supplement their needs and in a short period of time the bakeshop became an afterthought.
As more and more restaurants entered the competitive market in the 60’s and 70’s, it became necessary for those restaurants and hotels to seek out a competitive edge. Due to the rebel approach by a few traditional bakers in the U.S., restaurants started re-introducing bakeshops and a better on-site product. Two in particular were Michael London from Saratoga Springs, New York and Nancy Silverton from Southern California.
“So after 10 years, he moved his bread-making operation to his 1805 farmhouse, renamed the Rock Hill Bakehouse. The “Bakehouse” was nothing more than an average-size kitchen, but it was promptly colonized by four tons of bread a week, laid to cool on a tarp on the lawn—loaves named the Annie and the Charlie, loaves that predated the great artisanal bread explosion of the late ’80s by several years.
London began to articulate his philosophy of baking: about using organic grains (or, better still, grains grown by the environmentally and spirituallyconscious farming method known as Bio dynamics); about doing everything, except the mixing, by hand; about making breads that express the genius loci, because bread should contain the spirit of the place where it’s made.
Rock Hill was soon squeezing out 20,000 loaves a week to satisfy Manhattan restaurants like Le Bernadin and Lespinasse. But London wasn’t interested in merely overseeing a production line. And so we come to The Oven. “I had always been determined to build an oven consistent with my vision of a bakery,” London explains. “It’s very important that bread be baked in a chamber where there’s been fire, so it wears a little ash.”
NANCY SILVERTON and her husband Mark Peel were interested in baking quality breads to support their new restaurant and formed a separate company called La Brea Bread Company to produce for their operation and to wholesale some product to others. It grew into a larger production facility out of demand and eventually was sold to a larger distributor making their pre-baked product available to every restaurant across the country.
To each of these rebel bakers was the inspiration of the world master of bread: Lionel Poilane whose family business and philosophy continue to draw disciples throughout the world. Although his bakeries are in Paris, Paris outskirts and London, you can find his product in New York City, Boston, San Francisco and available overnight on-line. Poilane is considered by many to be the best bread in the world. Poilane, unfortunately passed away in recent years but his daughter carries on the traditions he established.
One of the most prestigious boulangerie in Paris has been run by the Poilâne family for almost 80 years.The boulangerie was started in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne, creating the world famous Poilâne Miche by mixing: stiff levain, gray stone-ground whole wheat flour, spelt flour, gray sea salt from Guérande, water…. and then baking in a traditional wood fired oven. Pierre Poilâne’s core philosophy for products he sold was they should be made with the simple ingredients and be hand crafted. Pain Poilâne, a traditional whole-wheat peasant loaf, has a distinctive rich taste.It’s crumb is slightly sour and chewy and the crust is dark and earthy colored.It has become one of the most famous sourdough breads in France and throughout the world.
This brings me back to the original point: America now has a taste for great bread and the philosophies of Poilane, London, and Silverton ring clear as a new generation of bread bakers continue to perfect the artisan craft in communities from Vermont to Oregon. Every town needs a great bread bakery just like you find in France and every restaurant worth a grain of salt must begin with exceptional bread on their table.
The bread baker is a unique individual with a passion for the craft, a commitment to process, and an un-wavering focus on flavor and texture. Their life is different from anyone else and worthy of reverent respect. When a chef finds a great baker he or she will do everything in their power to protect that relationship. When a consumer finds a baker with the passion to produce bread like Pollane, London and Silverton they must bring them into the fold of their family of friends.
Bread Bakers seem to enjoy starting work in the very early morning hours, often find solace in working alone, love the feel of flour in their face, relish the heat of intense ovens and talk to their bread waiting for a response of doneness when tapping on the bread’s underbelly. Their job is physical, mentally challenging and even emotional at times. The process is a blend of science, art, passion, tradition and carries with it an almost spiritual nature.
Here are a few noteworthy bakeries (I am sure you could add dozens of your own):
Gerard Rubaud – Vermont (good luck finding a loaf of his bread – they sellout instantly)
Red Hen Bakery – Vermont (near perfection)
Crown Point Bakery- Adirondacks of New York
The Vergennes Laundry – Vergennes, Vermont
On the nature of a baker –dedicated to his or her craft one should always note that as dedicated as chefs may be to the art and craft of cooking – they know their limits. Most chefs will readily admit that they are not bakers and thus have tremendous respect for those who are. Bakers make the kitchen alive with smells, artistic passion and shear dedication to product.
“In listening to Scherber talk poetically about the process of making bread, you can begin to understand the draw, the charm, and the reasons why bakers love what they do. Scherber reveals the wonder of working with something that is alive. “It is moving along at its own pace and you have to interpret the dough, absorb all the information it is giving you, and use your skills and knowledge to transform it into an exquisite loaf of bread. There is a truly rhythmic and organic nature to bread baking—a sense of flow and energy.”
Amy’s Breads – New York City
BLESS THE BREAD BAKERS – THEY ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH.
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