When it comes to bread, these sure are interesting times. On one hand, there is an increasing number of people for whom bread is strictly verboten, due either to a disease such as celiac, or because of gluten sensitivities or fad diets. And on the other hand, there are more bread shops and piles of artisanal bread for sale in stores and delis than ever before. It’s not unusual to arrive at one of these places late in the day only to find empty shelves scattered with a few lonely crumbs. So while some of us can be found setting up camp in the gluten-free aisle of Rainbow Grocery, many others are still buying and eating and obsessing over bread. And like craft beer (bread's second cousin), this enthusiasm has sparked an interest in reproducing some of these delicious, often iconic, loaves at home.
It’s not too hard to figure out which group Samuel Fromartz, the author of In Search of a Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey, belongs to because it’s all right there in the title. This book is the work of a man deeply interested in bread, from its long, involved role in human history and agriculture to how it works on a chemical level to the mechanics of kneading and folding. This is someone who tried to grow wheat in his garden, who traveled all over the USA and Europe to track down ancient grains and to visit other obsessed bakers. Not content to simply watch a master bread baker in action, Sam Fromartz is the kind of guy who rolled up his sleeves and plunged his arms into vats of sticky dough in order to ‘teach his hands’ how to form a loaf by repeating the same movement over and over again.
A freelance writer and journalist by trade, Fromartz saw an opportunity to pursue his passion for bread when the economy (and his regular freelance gigs) took a downturn in 2008. Already an enthusiastic home baker, he convinced a travel editor to send him to Paris for 10 days in order to learn hands-on how to make a classic baguette. Initially nervous that he would somehow ruin the pleasure and relaxation he got from baking bread by combining it with his day job, Fromartz was soon invigorated by the challenge. “I thought this work would bring me much closer to the perfect loaf,” he wrote in the introduction to In Search of a Perfect Loaf. “But what I didn’t appreciate was how this quest would fundamentally alter the way I viewed bakers, grains, and this basic sustenance, bread.” Several more of these hands-on visits to other bakers and dozens if not hundreds of loaves later, he realized that he had the makings for a book.
In Search of a Perfect Loaf is not a cookbook, although there are a few recipes (more on that later.) It’s first and foremost a tale of one man’s journey, both personal and investigative, into figuring out what goes into creating a really good loaf of bread. There are seven chapters in all, with each one featuring a baker or farmer along with information on a particular aspect of bread and bread making. The chapters all end with Fromartz’s own attempts to learn or create a specific kind of bread as well as a detailed recipe or two.
Fromartz begins his book with that Parisian baguette, a simple bread that is perhaps one of the most difficult of all to master. He brings us into the back rooms and basements of Parisian bakeries where we learn how modern conveniences almost destroyed this iconic loaf and how today’s bakers are rescuing it by finding a balance between mechanization and the fine, but backbreaking, art of creating a baguette by hand. After the first chapter on Paris and the baguette, we journey in the second chapter to La Brea bakery in Southern California and take a deep dive into the world of microbes and the so-called wild yeasts of the sourdough. While a few cherished myths are dispelled here, ultimately this chapter sheds light on this mysterious process and ends with a lesson on the classic sourdough loaf.
From there we learn about wheat diversity and genealogy and are schooled in the many forms of white and whole wheat flour, including the history of white flour’s popularity and how it and various permutations of whole wheat are actually made. The influence of bread on agriculture and the importance of the mill are examined as well as the introduction of modern technologies to all aspects of the process and the impact of this, both good and bad. We travel to Kansas to visit a heritage wheat operation and to Germany to learn how to make dense, dark, fragrant rye bread. Finally, Fromartz circles back to France, this time to a small operation in the south where a retired businessman-turned-baker grows his own grain and whose bakery functions as the heart of a small village.
The third chapter will hold a lot of local interest as it is devoted to the High Renaissance period of artisanal bread we are currently enjoying here in the Bay Area. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery is featured, of course, as well as Kathleen and Ed Weber of Della Fattoria and Mike Zabowski of The Bejkr, currently found at farmers' markets in Sonoma County. Throughout the chapter, Fromartz weaves in the story about the time Alice Waters asked him to bake the bread for a fundraising dinner she was doing at Bob Woodward’s house in Georgetown and includes a recipe for Pain de Campagne in the end.
There are a total of nine recipes in In Search of the Perfect Loaf, at least one for each chapter of the book, many of which are pages long and quite involved. Don’t let this deter you, for it has more to do with the intricacies of describing how to make bread than with the difficulty of the task. In fact, of all the recipes, Fromartz only lists two as difficult (a Levain Baguette and Roggenweizenbrot, a notoriously fickle rye bread from Germany.) Five of the other breads are labeled moderate and two flat breads (Emmer Flat Bread and Socca Americain) are considered easy. So there really is something here for everyone.
The recipe ingredients are listed by weight, as it should be. It is really much easier and, even more importantly, much more accurate, to weigh ingredients when baking. A simple digital kitchen scale is not hard to find for about $20 these days and their slim profile means they can easily be stashed in a cupboard. Fromartz chooses to list his weights in grams as he is very influenced by professional and European bakers. Again, many kitchen scales can toggle between ounces and grams, so this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
In addition to the information-packed chapters and recipes, there’s an index and glossary as well as an extensive notes section which sites many sources for the history, science, and techniques discussed. The hardcover book is illustrated with several black and white photographs of beautiful loaves of bread, bakers and their ovens, and wheat fields and millstones.
Bottom line: If you’re passionate about eating and making bread, then this book is obviously for you. You will not be disappointed with the breadth of research and quality of information (and maybe just a little envious of his many wonderful adventures and opportunities.) But what if you're not quite so geeky and hardcore? What if you're only just beginning to explore the world of bread making? This book is also for you because only someone who loves bread as much as Sam Fromartz does will lead you to the perfect, or at least really delicious, loaf of bread.
- Order In Search of a Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey
- For more information on Samuel Fromartz, visit his website
- Follow him on Twitter: @fromartz and on Facebook
- Samuel Fromartz will do a talk and book signing at Book Passage in the Ferry Building on Thursday, September 11 at 6pm.
- His September 12 Commonwealth Club appearance, in discussion with Chad Robertson of Tartine, is currently sold out
- He will also have a talk and book signing at The Shed in Healdsburg on September 12 at 5:30pm.