Behind the Scenes: Humble bread has a heroic history
March 1, 2014
Editor's note: this article is part one of two of a series on bread.
Did you realize that after you've been seated at a restaurant, served a glass of wine, given a breadbasket and a plate of olive oil that you have before you the three sacramental foods? Since antiquity, many cultures have revered these three foods, particularly bread, a source of nourishment for the ages.
The first "bakers" lived during the Neolithic period. Having discovered grains from tall grasses in the Fertile Crescent, New Stone Age man gave humanity this gift of sustenance. A simple combination of water and ground grain shaped into flat cakes and "baked" in the sun were seminal loaves of bread. Hot stones later replaced the sun's rays as a heat source. Although the first evidence of yeast ties the Egyptians to its use, it is believed that this leavening agent has pre-historic origins.
When Egyptian children went to school, their mothers sent them with ample beer and bread for lunch. As Moses led the Jews from Egypt, unleavened bread was all they had time to make, thus giving us matzo as a symbol of their flight from Egypt. The Romans prized bread and the craft of making it so much that they formed the first bread guild in 168 B.C.
Bread is mentioned 350 times in the King James Bible. It's in those pages that bread is noted as a symbol of hospitality and wealth. Breaking bread has long been a universal symbol of peace and emerged from the Last Supper as a symbol of Christ's body. Even the birthplace of Christ — "Beth lehem" means "house of bread" in Hebrew. This simple food, in its innumerable forms, is the only one all cultures, religions and ethnic groups share.
Keeping the 'art' in Artisan
I could continue to expound on the wealth of information my research uncovered, but I think you get my point. Given its pivotal role in history, I can't help but ask why our so-called "modern society" has relegated bread to a food of such low esteem. My simple answer: industrialization. Modernization has not been kind to the ancient craft of bread making, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, and led Julia Child to ask, "How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"
Fortunately, artisanal bread still adorns restaurant tables and bakery shelves in America. Increasingly, savvy restaurant chefs see bread as more than a pacifier for guests as they wait for their order. They respect the history, art and diverse flavors of this amalgam of flour, water, salt and yeast that heat transforms into tasty delights that set the stage for delicious fare to come.
I could write a tome on the history and significance of bread. However, I'm more interested in paying homage to culinary and pastry artists who haven't succumbed to the temptation to place industrialized bread on their tables for the sake of cost and ease. You will certainly notice common themes as we visit these restaurants as far-flung as Italy and New Orleans and in our backyard in Colorado. Let's start in the vineyards of my treasured Piemonte, Italy.
The Perfume of Bread
This past year, I introduced you to Mexican born chef Giullermo (Memo) Field Herdez. His quest for culinary knowledge took him to the Cordon Bleu in Paris and then along life's mysterious road to the heart of the Langhe in Piemonte. At Field Herdez's restaurant, Profumo di Vino, across from the church in Treiso, the smell of fresh bread is as important as the perfume of the region's wines he pours for his discerning clients.
Chef Field Herdez's mantra is "bread is a restaurant's calling card." He believes the quality of his feather-like, crispy grissini and crusty bread demonstrates early in guests' dining experience his "respect for ingredients." The smell of fresh baked bread made from only the finest flour Field Herdez can find permeates Profumo di Vino's kitchen each day. The passionate chef also prepares daily pasta that he combines with fresh, seasonal local ingredients to create mouthwatering, congruent flavors.
We'll now head west to my birthplace, New Orleans, where once again we'll visit with Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya.
Sunday Bread Everyday
Domenica — Italian for Sunday — is where Shaya and his pastry chef, Lisa White, create dazzling breads and pastries each day. Shaya values bread as the "most important item" made in the restaurant. It is the only thing each diner is served and is a valuable component in most of his creative dishes. To Shaya, bread is not an afterthought that can be purchased from an outside source. Its birthplace must be his kitchen, where it is made with devotion to quality.
White oversees the daily production of Domenica's potpourri of bread. Each morning, her team arrives at 3 a.m. to begin producing all the bread Domenica serves: ciabatta, focaccia, torta frita dough, panino loaves and buttermilk biscuits. For restaurant specials and events, White creates specialty breads such as challah, seeded baguettes and pannetone.
Each day in Domenica's wood fired oven, bakers prepare 70 to 110 crispy loaves of ciabatta that, sprinkled with za'atar from Juliet Mae Spices in California, partners with Shaya's lauded Two Run Farms lamb bolognese on tahini. Later in the day, the searing heat of the wood burning oven will transform 300 to 500 hand-shaped discs of fermented dough prepared from the highest quality flour and yeast into Domenica's sought-after pizzas.
Of course, the granddaddy of New Orleans celebrations is Mardi Gras. Each year, between Twelfth Night and the beginning of Lent, White prepares her much sought after king cakes. By the time the clock strikes midnight on Tuesday, demanding connoisseurs of this annual treat will have bought over 600 of White's delectable king cakes.
Although New Orleans lies in a "bowl" below sea level, eliminating the need to adjust for altitude as chefs must do in the high country, Shaya and White still contend with forces of nature that can affect their breads. Humidity, a constant in New Orleans throughout the year, and the way the dough is handled impacts their breads' quality. As we'll discover next week, a baker's touch when kneading and shaping dough can make or break a batch. All of those considerations are why Shaya believes "baking bread is more about love of a craft and an artistic eye than it is about being a good cook." It's not techniques and recipes that create delicious baked goods, but the heart and soul of the baker preparing them.
Next week we'll travel north to Colorado, where we'll visit restaurants in Denver and Vail Valley. We'll continue to follow the common thread woven through all restaurants where the quality of their bread is as important as the cuisine that follows it.
Hopefully, through our floury travels, I'll be able to dispel the myth that bread is a food to be avoided. The opposite is true. When prepared with love from the highest quality ingredients and enjoyed in moderation, it's a food that nourishes both the body and the soul.
In the meantime, please visit one of your local bakeries that still makes artisanal bread and thank them for keeping this ancient art alive.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.