by Chris Kulczycki
On a recent trip to Paris, I made pilgrimage to Lionel Poilanes bakery, the most famous boulanger, or baker, in France, a country where such a distinction is not taken lightly. His bread is substantial, chewy, crusty, full of the complex flavor of wild yeast and wheat, slightly acidic, moist: Bread thats a meal in itself. To compare this bread to most others is to compare crab cakes to fish sticks.
Poilane is one of a growing number of bakers around the world to turn his back on modern baking techniques and embrace artisanal baking. Using wood-fired brick ovens, wild yeast, organic flour and old-fashioned methods, they make bread as its been baked for centuries.
Are there any such bakers in Bay Country with the skill and devotion to make such inspired bread? I set off one morning to visit a dozen bakeries and find out.
Whats in a Loaf
I was looking for a loaf that contains only flour, water, sea salt and wild yeast. Oh, the baker might add a little whole wheat or rye flour for texture, or even a bit of honey or malt syrup to darken the crust. But there should be no dough conditioner, ascorbic acid, preservatives or other chemicals. And free-form loaves are preferable to those baked in loaf pans; not only are they better looking, they also have chewier crusts.
A big difference between industrial and artisanal breads is the leavening. Most bakers use commercial yeast, which causes dough to rise quickly and predictably, forming a soft loaf with small even holes and imparting little flavor. But artisan loaves are leavened with wild strains of yeast kept alive in a starter for decades or even centuries. Deep flavor develops as the dough rises slowly.
Some describe any bread made with a natural starter as sourdough, and technically it is. But wild yeast breads usually dont have that strong sour taste we associate with San Francisco sourdough. Many of the 60 odd strains of wild yeast have a very mild flavor, and its up to the baker to find, cultivate and use the right one.
My first find was the Boule Buonaparte, a handsome round French-style loaf with mahogany-colored crust heavily dusted with flour. I suspect that the dark color comes from a little malt syrup added to the dough. Its slightly tart and has a coarse crumb, or texture, with moderately large and very uneven holes, just what I was looking for. The flavor is so deep and complex that the dough must indeed have risen very slowly. The crust is both crisp and chewy.
These amazing loaves are made by Buonaparte Breads of Savage and are sold at The Big Cheese in The Market House at Annapolis City Dock and at Palate Pleasers in Eastport.
The boules are baked in a wood-fired oven imported from France. Pierre and Claudie Lefilliatre imported the oven when they started Buonaparte Breads about five years ago. They learned their craft in Paris, where they still own a bakery. Their bread is made using only traditional methods and ingredients.
Like all artisanal breads, those from Buonaparte Breads vary from day to day. Humidity, barometric pressure and other factors influence the taste and texture. On a good day, this bread is no less than magnificent, as good as any from those legendary Parisian bakeries; on an off day it is only very good. That is the risk of eschewing McYeast.
Judy at the Big Cheese tried to convince me that many of the Buonaparte breads taste the same. While they are made from the same dough, the shape of the loaf greatly influences the flavor; the boule, or ball, shaped loaves are my favorite. Be sure to check that this bread is fresh; on some days Ive found it tasted a little stale.
Palate Pleasers sold me a loaf that weighed a bit over a pound for $2.75; a 1.5-pound boule is $4.99 at The Big Cheese.
Hit and Miss
Buoyed by my first find, I continued my search. At Atlanta Bread Company in Severna Park I was met with a quizzical stare. Who would want such bread with no cranberries in it? The clerk pulled out a big binder of ingredients lists to see if anything met my description. I felt guilty for troubling her and bought a French loaf that was really just a big cotton ball with a crust and another that turned out to be an overly acidic caricature of San Francisco-style sourdough.
I recently heard several friends praise Fresh Fields pain au levain, a traditional French-style sourdough. This surprised me because Id tried it a few years ago and was disappointed with the dry, flavor-free loaf. Now Im happy to report this bread is much improved, chewy, slightly sour and moist. The crust is thick, chewy, golden brown and dusted with flour. It has a coarse crumb and large uneven holes that characterize wild yeast bread.
Fresh Fields should be congratulated for baking bread this good in a supermarket and charging only $3.49 for a large loaf. On most days you wouldnt confuse this loaf with a Boule Buonaparte, but occasionally it comes close.
My search next took me to Great Harvest Bread Company in West Annapolis. But a polite shake of the head met my inquiries. At least I was consoled with a free sample of pretty good white bread. And so it went at bakery after bakery. I wonder if they recounted stories of a strange fellow looking for real bread at the bakers bar that night.
In desperation I stopped at Gourmet Giant in Riva, where I found another fine pain au levain. Thats right: at the supermarket chain, that place that sells Wonder Bread. Their loaf is much like the loaf from Fresh Fields though a bit more sour. The crust is thick, the interior moist with big holes and a properly coarse crumb. The bottom is heavily floured, indicating that the dough rose right side up. Not traditional but not bad, either. I read the ingredients list; no surprises there. If Fresh Fields pain au levain is impressive, then this $2.59 loaf is stunning, not because its better, but because of where I bought it.
A Tuscan Aside
At Giolittis, the Italian deli in Parole, I encountered a lovely Tuscan loaf. Its not really made in the Tuscan style since it contains salt. True Tuscan bread is salt free and lousy because of it. Giolittis bread is fine-crumbed, dense, and has a moderately thick golden crust. It doesnt have the depth of flavor of the breads described above and is probably made with commercial yeast. Perhaps its not fair to compare, but I mention it because its nice to have another style of fine and traditional European bread available in Bay Country, especially one thats so delightful when dipped in good olive oil.
So what else do you do with bread this good? You can eat it plain or with good Normandy butter. But you might try my favorite sandwich: soft goat cheese, a few halved Kalamata olives, slices of summer tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper, served open-faced.