The Bread Rush

By Johnson, Elaine | Sunset, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Bread Rush


Johnson, Elaine, Sunset


Artisan loaves are setting a new standard. Here's what to look for and where to buy the best loaves in the West. On page 100, try your hand at a few recipes.

Bread is back--crackling hot from the oven at the new corner bakery, wrapped in linen at all the best restaurants, in rustling paper bags at the supermarket. Not just good bread, but fabulous bread--loaves with flavorful, chewy interiors and crusts to sink your teeth into, with decorative slashes and rustic shapes that look a little different every time.

The new breads go by old-fashioned names, like artisan-style, hearth, and country breads. You could also say they've redefined progress: the machine-made, plastic-wrapped white slices we grew up with are losing out to loaves that are handmade and purchased daily from a bakery that is part of the community.

What's fired the renewed interest in the staff of life? It's a story of our increasing interest in good food and nutrition, and in freshness. It's also the story of dedicated bakers all over the West who are committed to their craft, learning age-old European methods and adding their own twists.

Why bread is the new nifty food

Rustic loaves fit nicely into the lifestyle of many '90s "cocooners" who are going out less and eating better at home. For some, a stop for bread may even be part entertainment. The scene at Grace Baking in Oakland, California, is typical: the predinner rush brings a steady stream of customers who can choose from 40 kinds, including 20 different baguettes.

Customers have come to appreciate the handcrafted appearance of today's loaves. Says Nancy Silverton, owner of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, "When we started four years ago, people didn't really understand our bread. They would say, 'There's dirt all over your bread'--it was the residual flour. One lady, trying to be helpful, said, 'I love your bread, but did you know it's full of holes?' It took some education, but now the bread gives people a lot of joy." Michael Rose, of Semi-freddi's in the San Francisco Bay Area, adds that at the new bakeries, "You can buy something handmade for just a few dollars--which you can't say about much else."

The new rustic breads have lots of flavor without butter or toppings that add calories. Bread gets high marks as a good-for-you food, a great source of the complex carbohydrates that nutritionists advise we eat more of, and the trend is toward using more whole grains and organic flours. Bakers want to create food that's healthful and substantial.

A slice of bread history

A handful of bakers in Berkeley started the current bread craze in the 1970s, but the stage was set long before. During the California Gold Rush, miners who congregated in San Francisco took a prized possession with them to the fields: a sourdough starter. In those days before commercial yeast, the starter (a blend of flour, water, and helpful bacteria that lasted indefinitely, if cared for) meant the miners could bake leavened bread in camp. And the starter added a nice tang.

In 1849, Isidore Boudin founded San Francisco's first French bakery. Lore has it that Boudin borrowed some starter from a "sourdough," as the miners were called, and mixed it into a batch of dough. The West's most popular bread was born.

Did San Francisco invent sourdough bread? Not by a long shot. This interaction of bacteria and yeast actually goes back to the ancient Egyptians. Though European bakers have used sourdough techniques for centuries, Westerners were the first to cultivate the sour flavor.

Fast-forward to Berkeley in 1979. At Chez Panisse, a restaurant known for its obsession with quality, owner Alice Waters was frustrated that she couldn't get good bread. She asked Steve Sullivan, a Chez Panisse cook and passionate hobbyist baker, to make its baguettes.

"There were bakeries making flavorful, chewy baguettes (back then we were only interested in the baguette shape)," says Sullivan. …

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