If you’re among the growing number of home bakers, I highly suggest you reserve a weekend day for yourself and read Samuel Fromartz’s In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. Fromartz’s bread journey—a trip that took him to California and France and Germany—is enviable. He worked alongside bread titans, sharpened his bread game and delved deep into the world of wheat. The book reads less like a memoir and more like an exhaustive resource for home bread bakers with just enough historical relevance to place it on the must-read list for all bakers’ curriculums (and I mean that in the most enticing way).
Bread is having another moment. Even in the face of a food industry hell-bent on milking gluten-free living even for those who don’t need it, bread is resurgent. In fact, it is quite possible that bread has never been better (at least in the United States). You can taste it in the life-changing Ancient Grains Loaf from Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and you can see it in the gorgeous, hand-formed baguettes—pale, chewy interiors chock-full of irregular holes—at Almondine and Sullivan Street bakeries in New York.
And it isn’t just artisan bakeries that have doubled down on bread devotion. Even occasional home bakers (whose numbers probably grew tenfold once Jim Lahey unleashed his perfect no-knead bread recipe upon the world) are getting into bread like never before. People once weary of baking bread at home are now discussing fermentation and German rye with a casual zeal.
As a bread amateur—one who spends whole weekends futzing over starter and special flours—I begged to interview Samuel Fromartz about his new book. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
One of my favorite parts of the book is your coverage of Mike Zakowski. He seems like a mythological figure—a faded rockstar type living in Sonoma, baking bread in his back yard illegally. Can you give us an update on Mike?
He was eventually shut down by the city of Sonoma [for baking in his backyard]. It’s probably not a bad thing, considering he was doing a massive amount of baking from home. Actually, it wasn’t even his home. It was a rental property. Mike is a world-class baker. He teaches classes with the Bread Bakers Guild of America. And I just recently heard from him…he is relocating and setting up the oven and bakehouse again in another location. He sells at the farmers’ market in Sonoma and he delivers his loaves on his bicycle.
You spent time in Berlin working with the rye masters there. Aside from the extreme differences in the bread itself, can you describe the personality or work differences between the bakers of Paris and Berlin?
In some ways, there are more similarities between the Paris and Berlin bakers than with the bakers in the States and that is simply because the bakers I observed overseas were producing so much bread…upwards of 1,000 loaves per day. The pace with which they worked was extraordinary. I couldn’t keep up. This is much different than, say, someone like Mike Zakowski, who is producing bread in his backyard.
Where they were really different was in the type of loaves they valued. For instance, the rye breads in Berlin have heft to them. It is not the type of bread that is filled with lovely big air holes. And at one point I said to one of the German bakers: “You know, in the United States everyone wants big holes in their bread…and a light, sort of airy quality.” And she [the German baker] said: “So in America they want to pay for air?” The point, and this gets historical, is that bread was sustenance to the Germans. This is what kept you going. You don’t want holes—you want the calories and nutrition. If you think about it, we fetishize whole grains in America (including in my book), but in Germany it is just bread. You don’t eat them because they are better for you, or the environment, or because the government says you should eat them. You eat them because they are amazing. Wonderful. Delicious.
It sounds like you grew up with access to decent bread. So many of us, me included, grew up with only Wonder Bread or the like. Do you think the bread revolution in the cities will spread further afield this time?
I think it has spread, but spread in the way that these things always spread…in that Whole Foods now sells artisan loaves which are okay and La Brea Bakery is still producing par baked loaves which are sold in Safeway. I think it is going to spread, but there is going to be a limited market for an artisan loaf. And, well, some people are always going to prefer white bread because they have been eating it for so long.
What has really spread is the whole home-baking phenomenon—which got a big shot in the arm from Jim Lahey’s No-Knead recipe. It has been significant in raising the quality of bread in this country.
I find this whole idea of milling on site (a la The Mill in San Francisco) and then baking immediately exhilarating, but can you really taste the difference? You mention the health benefits in the book, but what are the other benefits?
Yes. There is so much more flavor. There is an aroma in the room from the dust from the mill and it smells good. Rye, right from the mill, has this sort of green, grassy aroma that is hard to explain. And corn: just-milled corn has this really sweet flavor that is sort of round and pleasant. And it is impossible to get that from the corn flours and cornmeal you pick up at stores.
Matt Lewis is the co-owner of Baked. His next cookbook, Baked Occasions, will be published this October.