“I like reality. It tastes like bread.”Jean Anouilh
…and then there are the rainy days, the snail days, the days of duck and cover. Weaving ‘round the puddles like a so-late-it’s-early drunk. And in a cobbled town, a labyrinth of streets, with a chill that filters up through roman stones and bones, a morning walk for bread becomes a hurried huddled dash. Add Max into the mix (puddles are the flame to his moth), and it’s not so hurried, not so focused, more a surrender to the elements and chance.
So you’re wet, but there’s an inescapable joy to the rambling, not to mention fierce pride on his face for carrying his own “plee” (parapluie/umbrella) like his big brother.
And because it’s early, and because fortune smiles on the brave, when you’re handed your baguette, crackling in a sheath of parchment, the day shifts a bit on its axis, and suddenly the damp and dodging are not only worth it, they seem to add to the pleasure: it’s still warm.
One of the key elements holding the universe together and making it a wondrous place is the experience of clutching a warm loaf of bread on a rainy day, feeling the heat, powdering your nose with a brush of flour when you inhale too vigorously, too closely. The anticipation, the debate – should I buy several? – as I’m more than likely to devour the whole thing before I even reach our street. Tearing off a corner, opening Pandora’s box, promises and pleasure escaping with the steam. A crisp crust, faintly salty with a bit of tooth, holds for the merest crackle of an instant before yielding to the pocketed and still alive/expanding crumb. Solid, earthy, light and airy…taste-buds go into primal overdrive and Proustian memories flood. Gluten-free be damned…gluten is glorious, chief nourisher in Life’s great feast. Flavor tumbles after flavor tumbles after wonder as starches and sugars and the best of grass and sunlight and rain and the warm corner by the stove embrace and remind you to slow down. It’s almost hard to not close your eyes and float away.
And it makes me wonder…
Bread. A couple handfuls of flour, some water, yeast…(pinch of salt if that’s your preference – it is mine) – why is this so hard? I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve been dabbling at baking bread for over 30 years, and there are plenty of variables:
Type of flour, fineness of the grind, mineral content and temperature of the water, strain of yeast, relative humidity and air temperature, how long do you knead it (if at all?), rising times, how’s your oven constructed, how hot can it get? But still…it’s bread. The most simple and basically satisfying of foods.
And yet, here, as I sit here chewing thoughtfully on a near perfect baguette I ask myself why. Why? Why is it basically impossible to find great bread anywhere in America? Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of decent breads, good breads, admirable breads stateside…but no GREAT breads. Yes, I know, I know…I’ve let myself in for a world of fight here, a lot of people will have a story about this little bakery in Petaluma, or Brooklyn Heights, or this farmer’s market stall in Vermont, or my friend Seth (and Seth’s bread is pretty damn good) but really….no. And if you do manage to find a magic wand (the French for ‘magic wand’ is literally “baguette magique”) it’s the rare, rare exception and not the rule. This is not some food-fanatic pickiness, this is not disdain for America, or romance for France. This is fact.
The bread in France is not only better, it’s amazingly, astoundingly, what-the-hell-have-we-been-eating-all-these-years-and-calling-bread better. And I’m not talking about multi-grain, pumped up with nuts, sunflower seeds, or barley sprouts – all good in their way – I’m talking about (see back a couple paragraphs) a simple white baguette. Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. Alchemy. And in spite of all the home craft-baking going on these days, ramped up to a par recently with home-brewers and no less passionate or opinionated, no one seems to really attempt the baguette, boules are more the thing. Again, good, but kinda hard to carry around and nibble.
Why are we afraid of a real crust in America? Crust is good. It crunches, it crumbles, it holds it all together and adds an earthy, complex (is that a really faint sorta salty caramel?) depth to the flavor. Hell, it adds flavor. And the interior is substance, not fluff – ivory colored, lightly chewy, riddled with air pockets, a nutty tang of the levain to counteract the hint of encroaching darkness from the crust. Crumbs are fine. If you ain’t got crumbs, something’s wrong. Get over it. Brush your shirt front off and order another round.
I have a simple baguette test – I cannot think of a single time in America that I sat (or strolled) and ate an entire baguette, slowly, enjoying the play of flavors, how they change as you chew, utterly satisfied. The whole thing. The bread stateside simply doesn’t merit it. But here….it’s a regular thing. Especially if it’s warm when they hand it to me. I can survive on bread alone. At least for a breakfast, or a lunch. Yes, it goes VERY well with a café crème, or a glass of wine and a smear of Banon or St. Marcellin. In fact, my breakfasts have pretty much become a café and a ficelle (a thin little half-size baguette, literally means ‘string’ or ‘twine’ in French). Lunches are indeed very often bread and cheese (and wine).
Part of it has to do with freshness. France is a bread culture, which America is not. Bread is baked fresh every day here, and you purchase it every day. It’s cliché, but there’s a reason the damn near universal image of a Frenchman has him carrying a baguette – because everyone, EVERYone goes out in the morning to pick up their daily fix. That image is spot on – every third person in the morning hours is carrying a baguette or three. And it’s still warm from the ovens when you buy it. And it smells like heaven, and it’s hard to resist tearing off a chunk right then and there and munching as you walk. Benjamin Franklin did it, Hemingway did it, and damned if I’m not gonna do it. And by the next day it will be too late, hard and stale, but for this one day….my god, it’s brilliant. Pick up some bread at Krogers or Wegman’s, or even Whole Foods, and it will stay ‘fresh’ for a week, but I wouldn’t trust it, nor do I understand what they hell they put in it to make it last like that. And the crust sucks.
This morning, at least, I resist total gluttony and chase off after Max, hoping to share the moment before it cools with Jess.
“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and Thou”, Omar Khayaam posited as Paradise about a thousand years ago – whether it’s the wilderness, or just the kitchen table, I’m tempted to agree.