Food & Drink : Grist for the mill

It’s hard to find a French baguette in SA, but the local variety has its charms

Looking back on it, there were some advantages to growing up in a small-town environment. One was that we ground our own wheat — honest. The wheat itself came from the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, in Washington State, where my father’s family had wheat ranches; the bright red grist mill was in our basement. Fresh bread was the natural product of all this industry, and to this day the smell of loaves straight from the oven is tonic for my soul. For the record, I’m a heel man — preferably with butter and honey.

Baker Elliot Dunn removes freshly baked baguettes from the oven at Whole Foods Market.

A good baguette is almost all “heel,” if you look at it properly. I learned to appreciate this characteristic while working in Paris, where riots were staged at the mere mention of an increase in the price of bread and debates frequently raged over which were the best bakeries. In time, even the subtleties of “bien cuit” (well-baked and crusty) and “pas trop cuit” (less-baked and a little floppy) were impressed upon me. There were partisans of both in my architectural office, and bakeries were happy to indulge them. You gotta love a country that allows you to specify your bread’s degree of doneness.

Despite our Wonder Bread adolescence, bread-baking in America has improved immensely in the last generation, and we seem to be particularly good at turning out sprouted, multi-grain loaves. But finding a good baguette is more difficult in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, its simplicity: At its most basic, a baguette is only flour, water, salt, and yeast.

For the record, a classic baguette should be about 2-feet long, thin, and somewhat flat. The crust (let’s assume bien cuit), deeply slashed just before baking, is crisp and crackling, the interior, or “mie” in French, almost creamy and riddled with Swiss-cheese-style holes. (One of my Parisian office-mates used to pull out most of the mie in order to concentrate on the crust — a man after my own heart.) Is there anything even approaching this in San Antonio? In a word, no.

At Central Market, where there are extremely dedicated bakers intent upon changing the city’s perception of bread, the “French” baguette, though aggressively slashed, is pale and puffy, its crust chewy rather than tight and crisp, and the crumb (our word for mie) is uniform and somewhat dry, with none of the natural sweetness that gives the Parisian model its charm.

The story is only marginally better at Whole Foods, where the City Baguette, the simplest version produced, makes much of its all-natural ingredients: organic wheat flour, filtered water, sea salt, and malted barley and ascorbic acid. The crust is wimpy, the texture of the crumb even less impressive than Central Market’s — but it does taste better. Not sweet exactly, but perhaps cleaner.

For standalone flavor, however, Whole Foods’ Country Baguette is the clear winner. Although it strays from French tradition with organic rye and barley flours, the Country Baguette’s crust is deeply toasty in color and has a pebbly texture, its crumb is dense and moist — even after a day — and its taste is complex, with an appealing yeast flavor. The chewy texture is all wrong, of course, but at least it’s not annoying. (The same is true of the baguette at La Madeleine; it’s also too dense and not crusty enough, but the chewiness is tolerable and the flavor is good.) If I were making sandwiches, the Country Baguette would be my choice.

However, when it comes to serving cheeses, my preference is always the ficelle loaves. What’s the difference? The answer is in the translation: baguette equals rod, stick, or wand; ficelle means string or twine. The latter’s smaller diameter yields a more desirable crust, and its sliced size is simply better portion control. According to Central Market baker Jenny Mattingsley, the grocer finds it hard to sell ficelles, so they’re baked only on weekends — and only in a prosciutto-and-black-pepper loaf (it’s possible to special-order a plain model). In CM’s ficelle, both the crust and crumb are closer to the Parisian ideal, but its usefulness is somewhat limited. A good, acidic goat cheese or a lusty blue might stand up to the pepper-bacon flavor, but most others would wilt.

Whole Foods bakes three different kinds of ficelles daily: plain, sourdough with rosemary, and seeded. The plain isn’t perfect, but it’s my cheese-and-paté bread of choice. WFM’s ficelle gives the jaw a workout, but its flavor is pleasantly, well, bready — and I mean that in the best sense, of course. And until some fairy comes along with a baguette de fée to change bread-making techniques, it’s the best we’ve got.

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