Staff of Life

When I lived in Seattle, I often went to the Pike Place Market to buy bread. There was a small bakery whose only access to the public was a small sliding window behind which a wiry old woman with curly gray hair and skin an alligator would be proud of. She sat on a stool and would reach behind her to get what you asked for.

They had great rye bread, dark, yeasty, with a crust like a crustacean. We ate it with butter and chewed on it with gusto.

“What do you want?”

“I’m looking for the nastiest, darkest, heaviest, sourest, thing you’ve got.”

“You’re lookin’ at her,” she said.

I mention it because when I was growing up in New Jersey, the standard bread came wrapped in cellophane and had as much character as mattress stuffing.

Wretched stuff. Wonder Bread, Silvercup Bread, Merita Bread. “Builds strong bodies 12 ways.” I could never understand, as a kid, why people would call bread the “staff of life.”

And food writers wrote panegyrics to the stuff. But the bread I knew — and the only bread I had any experience of — was banal, pasty, tasteless, or when not completely devoid of flavor, redolent of the stale air of the grocery store.

I hated bread as a kid. I hated sandwiches, which only wasted good filling between insipid slices of inanity.

The greatest thing since sliced bread? I had to scratch my head. Bread wasn’t great; bread was boring.

Our neighbor, who was Italian, often praised bread. It was his favorite part of the meal.

“I always have to get another slice to wipe up the last of the spaghetti sauce,” he would say. “But then, I have to get some more sauce for the last bites of bread. It never comes out even.”

It was an idealistic quest for a universal balance to the universe.

But of course, it wasn’t Wonder Bread he was eating. Ethnic breads have always been available, to those who required them.

Things have gotten better in America. Baguettes – or something very like them – are available in many grocery stores, along with various ciabattas and focaccias, but the standard issue loaf of boredom is still the upholstery of the bread shelves in all the supermarkets of America. Bread with no crumb. How can you have bread with no crumb?

How different it was when I first went to France, a nation where the lack of decent bread could cause a revolution. Here was a people who valued the real thing. Whether it was a boule or a demi-baguette, a croissant or a brioche, the bread was full of character and taste.

But the real champ was the baguette. Who knew bread could taste this good. With a shattering crust and a light interior, it had a browned, crusty flavor.

Now, I’m not a complete tyro. Certainly in my adult years I got over my childish hate of bread. As a grown-up, I discovered New York bagels and bialys, and the real Kaiser roll, the kind that if you drop it, it can dent linoleum, and the perfect foil for piles of thin-sliced rare roast beef. And sour rye breads piled with pastrami.

America has its excellent breads.

I bake my own, which is wonderful hot out of the oven, with a melting square of ice-cold butter on it.

But I wasn’t prepared for the difference between even good American bread and plain, ordinary old French French bread. This was bread to give you orgasms. Flavor — no, flavors, plural — that range from lip to pharynx with a medley of sensations much as physical as they were chemical. The initial crunch led to a repertoire of smaller crunches inside the closed mouth, and then the teeth broke through the crust into the heart of the bread and felt the giving elasticity of the gluten. The aroma entered the back of your sinuses like the after-swallow of a good wine.

This was no bread to erase errant pencil lines with. This is bread to build an altar to.

Every morning, and every evening, you could see the lines of acolytes extending outside the boulangeries, waiting for their turn when the counter woman, or priestess, would give them their host.

And nothing in them but flour, water, yeast and salt.

One can float in rapture writing about the patisseries and boulangeries of Paris.

On one side of the door are shelves filled with some of the most scrumptious pastries: tart de framboises, tart de pomme, raisin horns, tiny chocolate tarts with a surface so deep and brown and so smooth you would swear they were varnished.

They pile high, with the more expensive and larger pies and cakes at the bottom, the slices of things for sale in the middle, and the individual pastries on the top: croissants, pain au chocolate, raisin pastry.

Behind the counter, baskets stuffed with baguettes, like arrows in a quiver.

You can see the process at the boulangerie at the south end of the Rue de Chaligny on the Right Bank. The bakers work behind glass, where you can see the boulangers themselves, working dough in 20-gallon bowls with industrial dough hooks. One pulls the dough out, cuts off a chunk with a kind of spatula, lifts it into a large plastic bowl on a scale, cutting off chunks or adding new to reach the proper weight, then hoisting the bowls onto a wheeled cart, stacked up, bowl on bowl, to take to the back for the rising.

Behind him another boulanger, a young man about 20, lines up the snakelike baguette dough on a large tray: 24 to a tray, eight snakes across, three lined longways. Then with a deftness of a samurai and the insouciance of a cabbie, he wields his knife and makes exactly eight diagonal cuts in each loaf.

Behind him are three or four flat ovens, rather like pizza ovens, stacked up.

He opened up the lowest door, takes a long peel, slides it into the shimmering heat and pulls out four toasty baguettes at a time, resting the spade end of the peel on a ledge of the oven, and pulling the loaves off by hand, one or two at a time, and dumping them vertically into a large basket beside the oven. He pokes the peel back in, pulling out another load and repeating till the oven is empty. He then moves to the next highest oven and repeats same; then the third oven.

When they were all empty, he takes the large slate of dough snakes and with a single move, slides them all into the oven at once, leaving their palette in the oven with them.

After a few minutes, he opened the door once more and yanks the palette out, the way a performer whips a tablecloth out from under a table setting, without disturbing anything: He leaves the loaves behind to cook, sets the palette back on its stand and immediately begins unloading new raw baguette snakes onto the palette with a flat piece of wood.

It’s an industrial process, perfected through years of repetition, making the perfect baguette. You cannot duplicate it at home.

The finished bread, of course, looked better than any bread an American could possibly imagine.

The staff of life.


1 comment
  1. Diane said:

    Richard, though I still contest that butter just cooler than room temperature is the holy grail on hot bread, this post first made me drool, and then of course yearn to be in Paris again. Happy sigh.

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