"An invaluable guide for beginning bakers." –Sam Sifton, The New York Times
In 2009, journalist Samuel Fromartz was offered the assignment of a lifetime: to travel to France to work in a boulangerie. So began his quest to hone not just his homemade baguette—which later beat out professional bakeries to win the “Best Baguette of D.C.”—but his knowledge of bread, from seed to table.
For the next four years, Fromartz traveled across the United States and Europe, perfecting his sourdough in California, his whole grain rye in Berlin, and his country wheat in the South of France. Along the way, he met historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, and more. The result is an informative yet personal account of bread and breadbaking, complete with detailed recipes, tips, and beautiful photographs.
Entertaining and inspiring, this book will be a touchstone for a new generation of bakers and a must-read for anyone who wants to take a deeper look at this deceptively ordinary, exceptionally delicious staple: handmade bread.
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Samuel Fromartz’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Praise for In Search of the Perfect Loaf
A Note on the Recipes
RECIPE: Levain Baguette
RECIPE: Sourdough Starter
RECIPE: Pain de Campagne
RECIPE: Emmer Flatbread
RECIPE: Socca Américain
RECIPE: Turkey Red Miche
RECIPE: Pain Nature
It was December 2008, two months after Lehman Brothers imploded and a week before Christmas, when I got the call. One of my editors at a university magazine wouldn’t be needing my services anymore. Budget cuts were under way. Even he didn’t know how long his job would last. I hung up. Forty percent of my freelance income had just evaporated. I went out for a walk on that chilly morning in Washington, thinking how typical this was—the news coming just before Christmas. When I worked years earlier as a business reporter, I had covered these announcements of thousands of people cut, usually on Fridays, just before the holidays. After walking around the manicured lawns of the U.S. Capitol, I came back to my desk only to get more bad news. In disbelief, I listened as another editor, a good friend of mine, told me how he was being forced to end contract work. He hoped to keep me on but things didn’t look good. Sit tight for two or three months, he said. So in one day, I’d lost perhaps three fourths of my income. I looked at the picture of my young daughter staring back at me from my desk.
Freelancing is often filled with ups and downs, but that’s okay. It comes with the territory. The goal is to mix and match different projects, scraping by through lulls and working late or on weekends when things are really busy. But this was no lull. In a decade of freelance journalism, I had never experienced anything like this.
Since much of this contract work comes from people I know, I got busy, really busy. I started to send out e-mails to every friend, colleague, and former colleague who might know of work. I got a couple of responses pretty quickly, including one from an editor I had known for years, who was now heading a travel magazine start-up called Afar. A travel magazine in a near depression, the worst since the 1930s, when airline seats were going begging? I didn’t ask. This was a lead. A few days later I talked with her and you could hardly tell how bad things were. She described jaunts by writers to Madagascar, Venezuela, and Morocco. It was all about “experiential travel”—diving into the culture of a place rather than following the guidebook. Naturally, food was a big focus. Apparently this kind of immersion travel was a passion of the founders, who were committed to the magazine, recession or not. So did I have any ideas?
“Sure,” I stammered, trying to think of something fast. “You know, I’ve always wanted to visit Paris and work in a boulangerie, because I’ve never been able to make a true baguette.” Then I launched into the backstory: How I’d been baking at home for more than a decade, and how I always thought I could benefit from doing a stint at a real bakery. Though it was true that I’d fantasized about this, the destination I’d had in mind was Portland, San Francisco, Vermont, or New York. But on the spur of the moment, with the travel editor on the line, my destination had suddenly become Paris. After all, I spit out, a new wave of French artisan bakers had rescued bread—that national cultural symbol—from years of neglect, bringing back truly great loaves. So yes, maybe ten days in Paris would do it. Could I line this up in a couple of weeks and go soon after that? Maybe get the article in on time for their premier issue? “Sure,” I replied, knowing not one baker in Paris. Three weeks later, early in 2009, I was on a jet to Charles De Gaulle airport, surrounded by rows and rows of empty seats.
I felt like I had scored the ideal gig, but it also felt odd because I had rarely conflated my bread-baking hobby with work. Making bread was that special moment of the day when I could take my hands off the keyboard, stand up from my chair, and go downstairs to the kitchen and play with flour, water, sourdough, and salt. Instead of wasting time surfing the Internet on breaks, I would rummage through a cabinet filled with wheat, rye, and spelt flours; gathering sesame seeds and flaxseeds and tending to my sourdough starter. In this way, baking was the antithesis of writing, my version of chopping wood, crucial to maintaining my sanity amid the daily pressures of work. And that’s the way I wanted it. Cordoned off from writing, baking offered a brief reprieve, and for many years I sought to keep it that way.
But now, faced with a crisis and the need to generate work, any work, I had become pragmatic. This baguette excursion was the rationale to go deeper into bread and get paid at the same time, but I also knew that for a home baker the exercise wouldn’t be easy. Even if I did learn to master a baguette in a boulangerie, I would need to translate the technique to my home kitchen. I wouldn’t achieve a great baguette in a day or even a week. I knew, because I had tried many times and finally given up, convinced that a decent baguette couldn’t be made at home. But standing next to a baker, and one in Paris no less, maybe I could learn that one tip or technique that would fundamentally alter what I did. If so, if I really got that kind of “aha!” moment, the entire trip would be worth it. So the baguette became many things: a story, an unexpected source of income, and a challenge, for this bread had defeated me. But it also became something else—a template that I would later repeat with professional bakers in the United States and Europe, applying the same hands-on approach to bread-making problems I so often encountered at home. I thought this work would bring me much closer to the perfect loaf, but what I didn’t appreciate was how this quest would fundamentally alter the way I viewed bakers, grains, and this basic sustenance, bread.
• • •
Bread was always a part of my life, even if I didn’t get interested in bread making until well into adult life. I never recall a time growing up in Brooklyn when we didn’t have bread on the table. To be honest, there was usually bread and rice, representing the two cultural poles of my upbringing. My father, who came from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, liked bread with every meal. My mother, who is Japanese American, usually had a pot of rice on the stove. This rich personal relationship with starches, from Japanese short-grain rice to Russian black bread, has become part of my identity.
My dad’s family had emigrated from Kiev in Ukraine at the turn of the twentieth century. But the links to our Russian heritage were indirect, for I don’t remember eating anything in particular with my grandparents. There was no quintessential “Nana” food, no memorable dishes, no homemade loaves. Instead, the Jewish foods associated with New York—knishes, blintzes, pastrami, matzo ball soup, smoked fish, pickles, and, yes, bread—figured as prominently for me as they did for many New Yorkers, whether you were Jewish, Chinese, or Puerto Rican. Sometimes we got pumpernickel or a seeded rye at a Jewish bakery on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, or Levy’s Jewish rye, which I liked toasted. “Where’s the broyt?” my dad would ask at dinner, using the Yiddish word for bread. On Sundays, we often had fist-size bagels with cream cheese and Nova Scotia lox or smoked whitefish, which we picked up on Flatbush Avenue after ice skating at the Wollman Rink in Prospect Park. I still recall the bakery, with the white-haired guys in aprons and hats, turning the steaming bagels off wet wooden boards and popping them back into the oven for their final bake. In the evenings, we had rice with dinner. No one had even heard of a low-carb diet.
Later, after my parents split, my dad moved into an apartment on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, which broadened my culinary horizons simply because of the neighborhood. A. Zito & Sons Bakery was around the corner on Bleecker Street, with a marble counter stacked with Italian American loaves. It had just enough room for a half-dozen customers to buy the bread. Many of the customers were elderly Italians who lived nearby and had been buying Zito’s bread for years. The bakers dragged up the hot loaves in big plastic bins from the coal-fired oven in the basement through the steel trapdoor in the sidewalk. The bakery had its badge of honor prominently displayed: a picture of Sinatra holding one of its loaves.
My job, as a somewhat morose, long-haired teenager visiting my newly divorced dad and his younger girlfriend, was to run around the corner and buy the bread for dinner, a job I always relished because I could get out of the house. I would first visit Murray’s cheese shop—not the current store on Bleecker Street, which is an emporium of artisan cheeses, cured meats, and other delights, but the small, cramped place on Cornelia Street—where it often took twenty minutes just to get to the counter. Cheese in hand, I would walk around the corner to Zito’s, which had three types of bread: a torpedo-shaped white loaf, a whole wheat that I’d now guess was probably two-thirds white flour, and a round crown loaf studded with small bits of prosciutto from the leftover heels. When that prosciutto loaf came up from the basement, it filled the store with an incomparable smell—you had to rip into it as soon as you left the bakery. I’d bring the bread and cheese back to my dad’s place, and if the loaf wasn’t still warm by dinner, he would throw it in the oven for a few minutes.
Like Jewish rye and Russian black bread, these loaves were part of an era in New York, one that has now largely vanished. One by one, the old men retired and those bakeries shut down: the bagel place on Flatbush, the Jewish bakery on Church Avenue, and Vesuvio Bakery in SoHo, with the iconic storefront window. Then Zito’s shut down in 2003, ending an eighty-year run. The bakery stood empty for a long time, and whenever I passed by it I would wonder about its brick oven in the basement—whether it was still there, sitting dark and cold, maybe waiting for another baker to fire it up one day.
Zito’s didn’t make “artisan” bread or the Italian loaves currently in fashion, like pane pugliese, ciabatta, or filone. At the counter, the clerks would simply ask, “White or wheat?” The bread wouldn’t win any contests, for the crumb had an even and spongy texture that felt like a concession to squishy American bread. But the crust crackled and the entire package was perfect for mopping up spaghetti sauce. So why wax on about it, when its memory would unlikely make any top-ten great bread lists? Like many foods that sustained generations of immigrants, these neighborhood bakeries defined bread for me when I was growing up. This wasn’t plastic packaged supermarket bread, nor was it the denser whole wheat bricks from health food stores. It was the bread of immigrants: Italian breads with sesame seeds, chewy bagels, flavorful ryes, even steaming hot pita coming right out of the brick ovens run by Arabs in Brooklyn. It was all just good, fresh bread from the oven. It wasn’t artisanal and it wasn’t a movement.
• • •
When I moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s, artisan bread was starting to become popular. I knew little of the topography of the capital’s culinary scene, though I began to think about bread in a way I hadn’t before. That is, I actually began to think about it. When bread’s available, a part of a daily or weekly habit, you don’t really bother. But when it’s absent, the mind begins to work: Where is it? Who makes it? Where can I get it? Such musings, in times of intense shortages, have led to events like the French Revolution or the Arab Spring. Yet, as far as I could tell, amid the surfeit of steak houses in the capital, there was little great bread to be had and there hadn’t been so much as a protest, never mind a revolt. Bread, it seemed, lacked a constituency.
The bagel chains had arrived and left their mark on the town in the form of soft, doughy concoctions filled with sweeteners and blueberries. Aside from Uptown Bakers, a notable wholesale operation, with few stores, there was little to remark upon. Mark Furstenberg, a rare local baker of renown, known for his crusty and critical mien, was between ventures. He hadn’t yet opened what later became a favorite haunt of mine, Breadline, a bustling luncheon joint near the White House that featured house-made bread. In the meantime, I was stuck with other passable loaves that took a lot of effort to buy. When I finally met up with Furstenberg years later, he had an explanation for D.C.’s lackluster loaves. The city, he told me, didn’t have a great tradition of bread because it didn’t have a strong base of immigrants, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, even Baltimore. What Washington had instead were lobbyists, the federal government, and big wholesale bakeries that fed the restaurants, grocery stores, and numerous hotels. A popular sandwich joint, Taylor, which opened a decade after I arrived, even trucked its trademark sesame loaves all the way from Philadelphia, though, facing one too many breakdowns of its van on I-95, it finally prevailed on a local bakery to make the bread instead. Aside from Breadline, which Furstenberg owned and ran for several years, there wasn’t a single notable bakery in town where the bread was baked in the back and sold in the front.
Now, for most people, this isn’t an issue; an absence not even worth remarking upon, if it is noticed at all. For many, bread is an afterthought, even though globally it provides one fifth of humanity’s calories and is the highest source of protein—yes, we get more protein from wheat than meat. Half of the world’s poor depend on wheat as their main source of nutrition. But in the part of the world where we live, the gluten-intolerant and the carb-phobic seem to be far more aware of wheat than the rest of us who blindly consume the stuff. For me, though, probably because of my upbringing, bread never was simply an afterthought. I was always on the prowl for a good loaf, the best pizza, or the freshest handmade pita, but I had never even thought about making bread myself—that is, until I was confronted with its absence. I decided to give it a go.
I started out with two bread books, Joe Ortiz’s classic The Village Baker and Daniel Leader’s Bread Alone. Both were professional bakers who had traveled to Europe and then recounted stories in their books about the bakers they had met and the recipes they had learned. It was the stories that really hooked me. Leader had an especially infectious tale about his friend Basil Kamir, who had opened a world music record store in an old abandoned boulangerie in Paris. When the building was slated for demolition in an urban renewal project, he decided to save the place by firing up the long-neglected brick oven in the basement, thus making it a cultural artifact worthy of preservation. The protest saved the place—which still exists and sits across the street from a row of drab apartment buildings. But in order to preserve the building, Kamir had to make good on his word and become a baker. So he did, putting away his records and helping renew France’s bread tradition. Stories like this were so compelling that I recall fantasizing I might want to meet these bak...
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