It’s been about 10,000 years since humans figured out that if you grind certain seeds and mix the resulting dust with water and expose that to heat, you get bread. Of sorts. With time somebody decided to make the dough but put it aside for a while, maybe the neighboring tribe came over for a visit to show-off their new spears. A few days later, the baker remembers the dough and finds that it’s all swollen. Not wanting to waste good seed dust, he bakes it anyway. The first sourdough baguette results. That is what may have happened in Egypt.
Bread has been, in its many forms, a very important part of the human diet ever since. Each part of the world, except perhaps for extreme latitude locations and rain forests where they use tubers to make the flour. Bread is a filler to stretch the expensive part of the meal. Bread is also a star on its own. Imagine Indian Naan bread freshly out of the oven dripping with butter. Each region has perfected its particular style of bread. Liking or disliking particular breads is a personal choice based on all the factors that went into forming your mind. If you talk to a Palermitano (resident of Palermo) they will tell you that their bread is the best in the world. Sure there are good breads from other parts of Sicily but its not as good as the bread from Palermo. People from other Sicilian towns have similar attitudes about their own bread. They agree that the further you go north on the peninsula, the worse the bread gets. Once you leave the territory of Italy there is no point in commenting. It’s just not bread. These provincial attitudes about bread, and many other things, are based on regional pride rather than fact. Tuscans think their bread is best even though it has no salt and the texture of most breads are not glutinous, being crumbly and dry.
I like all breads but I really like French bread the best. They have refined the art of bread making to the highest possible level. And the French people know this. At least most of them. Well most of the older ones. France is seeing a boulangerie crisis.
In the USA bakeries are relatively rare. Stores that sell fresh baked bread can be found in larger cities but not in smaller towns. Cornwall, where I lived for most of a lifetime did not have a bakery. One must drive to New Windsor or Newburgh to find mediocre bakeries that had trouble staying open. The bread sold at these locations were at best, edible. When, about 20 years ago, or maybe longer, a bread bakery opened up in the Catskills, almost an hour away, I made that trip, on occasion, to buy real bread. That bakery has become well known and has expanded through franchise to upscale towns like Rhinebeck. Bread Alone’s success shows that there is a market for good bread but not enough of a market to sustain small bakeries in small towns. Yes New York City has good bakeries that rival the best in the world but they have the population to support such endeavors.
Americans are busy. They buy commercial bread at the supermarket. People are not exposed to the qualities of good bread because they grow up in households that don’t really know or appreciate good bread. Now with the KETO movement and Atkins, carbohydrates have been villainized, justifiably or not. I really do not eat much bread but I do enjoy great bread. When I tried the KETO diet I obsessed about bread. About croissants and baguettes and brioche, and all the stuff on display at the boulanger in the little town where we lived in Brittany. That town was small compared to Cornwall. At most the winter population was less than 1000 people while Cornwall, when I was growing up there had over 10,000 people. Much more now. And yet Saint Pierre Quiberon had two active bakeries within 50 yards of each other. There was also a third that was closed. Like many other boulangers in other towns that were also closed. Each of the little towns had at least one active boulanger but the second or third shop was closed. That means that at one time each of these little hamlets had as many as 3 shops.
The NYTimes recently published an article about French Bakeries, thanks Amelia .Article here
The above article is about the problem small French Towns are having keeping their local boulangeries open. It is not that they don’t have customers. The problem is in attracting young people to take a job that requires starting work at 2 AM and staying for the better part of the day. We noticed that there are many bakeries in France. As I said there were two in the little town where we lived and many more in the nearby small city of Quiberon. But we also noticed that there were many closed and for rent or sale shops. We also noticed that supermarkets had bakery sections with a wide selection of breads. Breads that are not nearly as good. The article also points out that in the town that they featured in the article, when the bakery closed the butcher shop next door also closed a short time later. That was because the people who were drawn by the warm croissants and baguettes would also stop at the butcher shop. No croissants no pork chops.
It comes down to pride and craftsmanship. Like the Japanese Sushi chef taking 5 years to learn the proper way to make the rice used for sushi (I know, sushi means rice but you know what I mean). The master Boulanger takes years to learn the craft. There are fewer and fewer of those people and thus fewer and fewer bakers to run the little shops that, as it turns out, is the commercial lifeblood of the little neighborhood shops that make the little european villages the wonderful places that they are. They are disappearing and the world is destined to losing that little bit of difference between good and good enough.
Today I walked into the little butcher shop in San Casciano, the town we go to shop. I needed something like a ham hock to make a soup. The concept of ham hock does not really exist in Italy so the conversation turned to alternatives that I could use. He showed me some raw trotters but I told him I was not interested in cooking them for 3 hours since I wanted to make lunch and it was close to lunch already. Finally he took out a prosciutto and cut off the knee end and sold it to me for 5 euro’s. I noticed the white truffles on his counter and the discussion went there with me smelling each one of them and discussing the sales of truffles and how the locals dealt with them and why they didn’t smell as potent as I was used to. Then the conversation went to steaks and why I didn’t see any Scottish grass fed cuts. (The Tuscans don’t like the yellow fat of grass fed cuts because they are too herbaceous). We also talked about his recently made capocollo (it’s actually headcheese in Tuscany). When is the last time you had a conversation with your supermarket butcher? Or the racks of bagged bread?
We came to Europe, among many other things, to participate in the neighborhood shop culture. A culture that has, for the most part, disappeared in the USA (except for some very upscale areas) and appears to be threatened here in Europe as well. But happily it’s not gone yet.