Sunday, October 26, 2008

Daily Bread

I have a thing about bread and I'll just call it snobbery. I can't say when it started, but it has followed me ever since I set my little size 3 foot in a kitchen. Maybe it was those muffins my mom reheated in the oven. I loved the oil stained bag she baked them in. Way before anyone ever considered transfats, these came from an oven which transformed them from hardened shells to soft, cinnamon-scented wonders.

Maybe it was the second-grade school trip to Huber's bakery, where they made Sun Beam bread, a loaf that no doubt began its life being made by hands, but by 1968 or so, was rolling off an assembly line by the thousands. It was the kind of bread that you'd go fishing with, not really to eat, but mostly to mold round a fish hook, small enough to lure the bluegills that swam in Hannum's pond.

That trip instilled in me a wonder at industrial processes, but mostly overloaded my reptilian brain with the smell of fresh-baked bread, a smell that still attracts me, no matter how mechanized it might be.

That love of bread has led me to seek out the best bakeries where ever I go. In Fairbanks, that included joining a co-op which flew in bread from the Alpine bakery in Whitehorse, Yukon, 600 miles away. Trips to Anchorage often included a stop at bagel shop for enough supply to fill a second checked bag. Of course, Paris was full of bread, but like all cities, quality varies. The bakery below my apartment in the 13th arrondissement sold a nice looking crusty but ultimately insubstantial loaf for about 65 centimes, though for €1.10 I could usually get a ‘baguette traditionelle’ which always satisfied. I often bought two, to support the authentic cheeses I indulged in.

China was a nightmare for bread and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. Like so much in that country, all that seems to matter is what something looks like on the outside. Forget what it’s built from. Rebar in concrete? Nah, that just drives up the cost. This is the same kind of thinking that allows people to put coal derivatives like melamine in baby formula. Not surprisingly, Western-oriented products were all show but left the consumer empty. I mean, come on, get real. China’s built on rice and its wheat goes to noodles. It’s not a bread nation.

Bread bliss returned in Denver where trendy urban sophisticates have a growing appreciation of authentic bread and I found all sorts to choose from, but Sydney is a few years behind. It took weeks to locate the good breads and wouldn’t you know, my favorite is made by bakers who trained in San Francisco and who came back and created Sonoma Baking Company. I prefer to get my bread from Sonoma and each Saturday, they retail at the Orange Grove outdoor market near my house. I love riding my bike over, seeing the beautiful loaves and trading a bit of Spanish with the lovely Peruvian who runs the stall. I often follow that with a trip to the Gympie Farm vendors who are now retailing a terrific line of Tasmanian artesian cheeses.

It’s taken a while for Australia to join the epicures of the world, but the decades of immigration have paid off. Food is good here and I think outrivals any I’ve sampled in the US. Though I know one guy who every day still swallows Vegemite on TipTop, (the Australian equivalent of Skippy on Wonder) and the Asian-owned Hot Bread shops still sell heaps of doughy white, the days of monoculture bread are gone. Of course, cheap kilojoules still rule the market and good food costs substantially more here, but I’m thankful that I can get it, now that I too am an urban sophisticate.

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