Best Bread In The World
November 23, 2002 3:26 AM   Subscribe

The Upper Crust Of Bread: What happens when the greatest bread-maker in France, Lionel Poilâne, talks to America's finest baker, Peter Reinhart, and her most fanatical bread-taster, Edward Behr? I'll tell you what: a scrumptious, crackling and very knowledgeable conversation about the the wonders of the baguette, the complexities of simple bread and the deliciousness ["Forgiveness for mistranslations"] of the staff of life in general. Last year, for the first time ever, an American baker beat the French competition to win the "Best Bread in the World" award. Will what recently happened with wine in the New World now happen with bread? Will the Americans [peanut butter and jelly sandwiches notwithstanding] begin abandoning industrial, pre-sliced and sweetened white bread, just as Europe increasingly and depressingly succumbs to it? [Main link requires Real Audio.].
posted by MiguelCardoso (29 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I hate to be the bearer of sad news, but Lionel Poilâne died very recently in a helicopter crash(NYT).
posted by skryche at 4:07 AM on November 23, 2002

The late Lionel Poilane apparently had contacts [link goes to french-speaking newspaper article] with the Front National (far-right party).
posted by Baud at 4:17 AM on November 23, 2002

Artisan baking as it's frequently referred to, continues to grow in the US. While I doubt we'll ever surpass Europe, more and more people are learning age old techniques for bread baking and producing high quality artisan bread.

What I find worse than wonderbread is that some large chain grocery stores are trying to get in on the act, making boule shaped breads, using the same dough that they use for their so called 'baguettes' or loaf bread. They are awful, and while I recognize the difference I know that there will be plenty of folks that wont, and will be turned off by the bread, never to know the joys of artisan baking.
posted by CoolHandPuke at 4:57 AM on November 23, 2002

Great post on a fascinating subject Miguel.

I urge everyone to find a local baker and start to frequent his/her establishment. I'm not a fierce anti-conglomerate proponent (heck they are convenient) but I do advocate a return to the small. local business especially when it comes to foodstuff. There is a butcher I know that I have gone to a few times and sure it's a bit out of the way in a predominantly latino/hispanic neighborhood but the cuts rock! And I get to work on my conversational spainish skills.
posted by Dagobert at 5:31 AM on November 23, 2002

I grew up on practically the only freshly-baked bread that was avaliable in America: New York bagels. There's a difference between fresh bread and industrially produced bread that anyone can taste immediately if they're just paying attention to what they eat. An industrial baguette, despite the oh-so-French cachet, is really not very different from Wonder Bread.

It's incredibly encouraging news that the French are tightening up the requirements for who can call themselves a "boulangerie". While I was living there, one by one every boulangerie in my neighborhood went over to heating up frozen dough. I'm not surprised to hear that today there are thousands of fake boulangeries in France, and I'm really happy to see they are reversing the trend.

This story gets to the two reasons why food is good in France: First, because people there will complain about having to eat industrial food (OK, actually they'll complain about everything, but food genuinely matters). Second, because the government is willing to be strict about naming and food information, so that people can know what they're buying and find the good stuff.
posted by fuzz at 7:36 AM on November 23, 2002

I've avoided making bread, despite a bread making heritage, mostly because my early attempts turned out quite poorly. Well, totally crappy is a better description. Maybe I'll give it a go again...
posted by daver at 7:37 AM on November 23, 2002

I showed this thread to a food writer acquaintence of mine and she vehemently denies that Lionel Poilâne had right-wing connections. His brother is another story, but they were not on good terms.

L.P. was also a really great guy, from what I've heard her say of him.
posted by skryche at 7:42 AM on November 23, 2002

I can smell the links. I really recommend getting one of those bread machines, because you can make delicious breads with them, and because they are so easy to use and clean, it encourages you to use it more often. A standard recipe with a spoonful of instant coffee makes a wonderful morning bread. Substitute canned tomatoes for water, add onions, oregano, basil and crushed pepper, and you get a bread that tastes like pizza. Chop up a couple hundred grams of zucchini or pumpkin and throw it into a standard bread recipe. That's good winter stuff.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:57 AM on November 23, 2002

Planetkyoto, do you also like gingerbread (not to mention carrotbread, zucchinibread, and uh, various assorted similar)? I am sadly impossible at making any sort of real bread (thank goodness I live in Greece, where I don't have to), but I kick ass making banana bread...
posted by taz at 8:26 AM on November 23, 2002

"I really recommend getting one of those bread machines..."

I second that motion. My wife insisted on a bread machine for Christmas last year, and I, not wanting to be the Grinch, obliged. Now it's become a present for me, because I get to eat all the incredible things she makes with it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:36 AM on November 23, 2002

Who the hell buys bread any more? Bread machines are cheap as can be and make wonderful bread. Surely not as great as Lionels, but a helluva lot better than the crap sold at the grocery.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:14 AM on November 23, 2002

Agree on the bread machines, basic wholemeal, still warm from the machine, is like biting into a slice of the countryside on a warm summers day. It's all so easy, you can wake up to fresh bread and come home to fresh bread.
2 minutes to load up the machine and that's it. At the weekend you can fanny about with all sorts of flavours. This afternoon the kids demanded pizza, within 45 minutes I had a perfectly acceptable base. Just say no to crap bread!
posted by Fat Buddha at 10:40 AM on November 23, 2002

I'm not much of a baker, although I made a killer tea brack a few years ago at Xmas (like this, for example, but I suggest orange peels, cloves, raisins, and a little cocoa. And maybe avoid the pumpkin, prunes and marmalade .). So I don't know much about Lionel (I'll avoid his last name as I don't know how to code the accent over the 'a'). But Father Dominic has some killer bread recipes. Monks really seem to appreciate their food (perhaps in lieu of more risque entertainment). They invented cappuccino, you know.
posted by Shane at 11:39 AM on November 23, 2002

That was a bit like a nightmare, opening the thread to find out a hero of mine was dead. I don't buy the FN thing, though. Judging from the link kindly provided by Baud, he twice sent out some pastries to FN publications - big deal. His brother probably asked him to - or it was just a bit of PR. Anyway, this truly is a case of a legacy living on.

One of the most interesting and true things said in the NPR Connections programme is the way every country (and region) is always proud of its traditionally baked bread - even when it's awful.

What's responsible for the pervasiveness of industrial bread in Europe (all that horrible frozen dough) has a lot to do with price. We expect it to be dirt cheap and refuse to pay a little extra for properly baked, made-from-scratch bread. And we pay the price for that inflexibility.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:46 AM on November 23, 2002

I was pretty surprised when I went to the Poilane store in Paris some years ago -- it may have been a bad day, but the bread I had there wasn't good at all...too sour and characterless. Disappointing, as I'd had completely kick-ass bread at no-name boulangeries all over Paris. (My mother the former food writer agreed.)

I haven't spent too much time in France the past couple of years, but I was wondering if the bread there is still government-subsidized. Or is the dirt-cheap frozen-dough brigade that Miguel spoke of above encroaching there too?
posted by Vidiot at 12:00 PM on November 23, 2002

Vidiot - we're talking 10 centimes/cents for a freshly baked, good-sized crusty roll and a maximum of 1 euro/dollar for a whole loaf. In Portugal, Italy and Spain it's a hangover from pre-democratic days, when the goverment established a single, fixed price for staples such as bread, a cup of expresso, a glass of wine. The funny thing is that everybody remembers how cheap and good these things were during the dictatorship and, forgetting the time scale, makes an inappropriate association, i.e. : Fascism: a Bad Thing. But with Good, Cheap food.

The reason I believe the U.S. will do with bread what they did with wine is that, as with wine, you have all the proper ingredients and, with such an astoundingly wide ethnic range of bread types - and the media to market it - it's bound to happen.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:16 PM on November 23, 2002

goverment = government. Is this the same spelling phenomenon that happens with son of a bitch = summabitch ?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:20 PM on November 23, 2002

No, that would be the spelling, "gubmint", which is favoured by all the cogniscenti.
posted by Dagobert at 12:28 PM on November 23, 2002

posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:36 PM on November 23, 2002

Great post Miguel - you are always leaving us bread crumb trails to some of the finer things in life so this is very apropos - thanks! Plus we have a segue of wine & cheese posts - a very weekend kind mefi indeed!

I'm finding a lot of the U.S. bakeries leaning a little too heavily on the sour quotient lately, which is not to my liking. After reading this thread, maybe I will go the bread machine route.
posted by madamjujujive at 12:41 PM on November 23, 2002

Madamjujujive: No, I don't like it either. It's probably due to the great sourdough tradition in the States, which Poilâne bread ironically picks up on (this is probably why Vidiot didn't enjoy it either). I have to admit that, although I'm Jewish, I don't much like rye bread either. Or egg-rich challah bread. Or bread with seeds or raisins in. In fact, anything but wheat, salt, yeast and water. I like extremely crusty real white bread with a doughy, willowy interior, no more than two hours old. Soft bread I cannot eat. Bread with sugar, I'd rather starve.

About the cheese and wine thing: yes, it's such fun I'm dreading the moment I open up MeTa and the 1 new link simply says WTF? FoodieFilter? ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:17 PM on November 23, 2002

yeah, I'm not a huge sourdough fan, but it CAN be good. (not too often yet, but I'd walk through fire for a good loaf of my friend Diana's sourdough.) The Poilâne loaf I had was so sour that it almost tasted of nothing else. (Like I said, I'm willing to say it could have been a bad day at Chez Poilâne.)

I really really like a good crusty real white bread. But heck, I like the rye bread, multigrain, raisiny, challah, bagels...okay, I just like bread, all right? Anything wrong with that?

mmmm...basking in that warm sweet carbo-glow...
posted by Vidiot at 1:32 PM on November 23, 2002

...and I'm NOT gonna get a bread machine, no matter how many people recommend them to me. I'd only weigh about 400 more pounds than my current already-too-big number.
posted by Vidiot at 1:35 PM on November 23, 2002

This thread so far has ignored the other great American bread tradition: Corn bread ("maize bread" for the Brits). Sure, it's not "real" bread, but who cares? It's probably the only bread you can still get at just about anywhere in America that's fresh baked nine times out of ten.

The best bread I've ever had actually, was a corn-bread and sourdough mixed-loaf in Charleston at a restaurant I now forget the name of. Straight out of the oven and to us as the side order of some sort of thick crab gumbo (ok, I was twelve, the details are a bit hazy ;P). All I'd've needed then would be a steak (a rare-cooked loin), and my tastebuds would have had an orgasm.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:58 PM on November 23, 2002

Behold, Miguel. One Boule, please, though lots of people like Focaccia for lunch. Looks pretty good, doesn't it? Well, there's a competing bakery, about 10 blocks from the first, that makes a whup ass Swiss bread.

And where? In a small college town in rural central Illinois.

And both those bakeries are extremely successful against the chain bakeries that have popped up in the last couple of years.

Hope springs eternal, no?
posted by dglynn at 7:50 PM on November 23, 2002

I bake bread all the time... if the windows are open, neighbor kids all find reasons to come over on bread days. ;)

As to bread machines, I have a suggestion for those who find that the machine creates a bread that's too heavy or dense. (I find this to be true.)

I use the bread machine to just create the dough. Let it go through the rise and beat down process once or twice, then, pull the dough out, hand knead it, shape it into loaves, cover it with cheesecloth and let it rise for at least another hour, before baking it in the convection oven. It turns out really amazingly light bread with a good sturdy crust. Yum.
posted by dejah420 at 9:32 PM on November 24, 2002

Well, dglynn, you've certainly given me hope. I attend college down there and after sampling the pale offerings around collegetown, had nearly given up hope of palatable cuisine.

So there's a great bakery in Evanston, by my home, and a great one in Urbana, where I attend college...

... I am a sublimely happy man.
posted by poq at 8:35 AM on November 25, 2002

I have never been satisfied with bread from a bread making machine. Nor bread from any bakery I've ever been to. There is simply nothing that compares with my own home made bread just out of the oven. I've been baking bread for thirty years and have tried hundreds of recipes, but I always go back to the basic ingredients of yeast, flour, water, salt, and shortening that are magically transformed into the best food on earth.

Having said that, I will share a scrumptious little recipe that I've made three times in the last month because it makes a terrific brunch bread or sidedish. Unbelievably good when used for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Pecan Cheese Bread
2 1/2 C flour
1 TB sugar
2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 beaten eggs
1 8 oz carton of plain yoghurt
1/2 C oil
1/4 C milk
1 TB spicy brown mustard
1 C shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 C grated parmesan or asiago cheese
1 C chopped and toasted pecans

Grease a loaf pan. Heat oven to 350
Combine flour, sugar, pepper, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Make a well in the middle and set aside.

In another bowl, combine eggs, yoghurt, oil, milk and mustard. Add egg mixture to flour and add in final ingredients. Stir just until moistened. Pour into pan.

Bake for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, turn out onto a rack, and then cool for one hour before serving warm.

Note: I like to play around with the cheeses. Try swiss and romano. Or leave off the nuts and use pepper jack and jalapenos.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:25 PM on November 25, 2002

Wow. Thanks, Secret!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:01 AM on November 26, 2002

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