Every day for weeks now, a strange ritual has been performed daily in select kitchens around the area. The lucky neighbors of a new bakery in northwest Washington, and other cooks in the know, have been standing half-eaten loaves of bread upright on bread boards, with some buying so many kinds of bread that their countertops have begun to resemble little Stonehenges.
The customers have been instructed to do so by the bakers at Marvelous Market, who are adamant that laying the cut side of the bread flat on the counter is the only way to store it -- no bags, no plastic.
It's cultish all right, but the store, located on upper Connecticut Avenue, may soon become an institution. Found here are the elusive loaves food writers are talking about when they tell you to serve a soup or a stew "with some good crusty bread."
Mark Furstenberg acknowledges that the thick crusts of the more than a dozen breads he sells, which are as chewy and flavorful as can be, are a hit with the customers. "I think the whole world is made up of crust freaks," he says.
So far, the store has benefitted mostly by an enthusiastic grapevine. Although the store has been open for almost two months, Furstenberg waited until after Labor Day to hold the official debut party, and as of yet, the store has had only minor press. But that hasn't prevented a steady flow of customers from descending on the place.
Robin Land, a personal fitness trainer who lives in the neighborhood, was excited enough about the store to spread the news in the middle of her aerobics class at Somebodies Exercise Studio in Georgetown.
"We were on the floor doing leg work, and to distract them so they wouldn't think about how their legs hurt, I asked them if they'd heard about this place," she said. "They looked at me and said, 'why are you telling us this?' But I said, 'you can eat the bread, just don't put butter on it.' "
Land, who likes to eat the fig bread for breakfast, says she has told everyone she knows about the store, and says, "the first time it was open and I went in, I was shocked at how many people were there already."
Steven Kopstein came in for the first time last week because he'd tried the bread while volunteering at Food and Friends, an organization that delivers nutritious meals to people with AIDS. Marvelous Market donates unsold loaves of bread to Food and Friends, and Kopstein said he was at the store only partly to return the favor.
"Actually, this is really good bread," he said. "It's the first good bread in Washington."
The distinctive baking techniques were learned by Furstenberg, and bakers Eugene Gathright and Stanley Bosefski, from Nancy Silverton of the La Brea bakery in Los Angeles. And although the 52-year-old Furstenberg did not have a background in the food industry before this venture, he had found a similar satisfaction in a business he used to run manufacturing copper tubing in Pennsylvania.
"What I really loved was making something -- I liked to be able to hold in my hand something I made," he said. When the copper tubing "rolls off the lines, it's just beautiful, it's like jewelry."
When he decided to go into the food business, he remembered a long-standing complaint of his and other Washingtonians. "As long as I can remember, people have said there's no good bread in Washington. That seemed to be much more of a challenge than bringing good produce to Washington, which is also a need."
And it is a challenge to keep those golden loaves rolling into the display baskets. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the bakers make about 700 pounds of bread; on Thursdays and Fridays, 800 pounds, and on Saturdays and Sundays they put out 900 pounds for the weekend customers hungry for good bread they can eat at leisure.
Standing on a floor carpeted only with white flour, the bakers knead the dough so swiftly that it's hard to see it turn. The ovens turn out about a 100 pounds of bread an hour: traditional baguettes and boules, richly texured grain and walnut breads, a slightly sour and pungent olive bread and fragrant rosemary-flecked loaves.
The breads get their character, says Furstenberg, from the flour that is ground to specification at a mill in North Carolina, the slow maturation of the dough, and the oven, which has adjustable steam and vent units.
The 31-year-old Gathright, who got a graduate degree in international affairs and then never looked back, now prefers to read books on food science in his spare time. He thus can explain to a layman why the Marvelous bread shouldn't be stored in plastic.
"It makes the crusts soft," he says patiently, "and keeping it in the refrigerator will increase the staleing process." Freezing and thawing the bread is fine though, "because when the bread is reheated in the oven, the moisture on the crust is driven back into the bread and it tastes fresh again."
Another tip is to eat the bread at room temperature: "You can't taste the flavors as well when it's hot." However, customers need not live on bread alone (although there are some who feel that just a few slabs of the olive bread is a meal). There is a refrigerated display case of Sicilian-styled lunch and dinner specials made by cooking teacher and author Mimmetta Lo Monte in the kitchen at the back of the store. The specials, which vary from frittata sandwiches or eggplant stuffed with mint and garlic, to turkey breast with an olive sauce, sell briskly, and customers who drop in after work often find one or two dishes already crossed out on the posted menus.
Furstenberg also sells Vermont-made chevre and mascarpone cheeses, smoked trouts and salmon from Virginia and a line of sausages from the Aidells Sausage Company in California along with jars of condiments ranging from the usual (apple butters and jams) to the unusual (pickled garlic with red chilis).
It's the breads, though, which are attracting all the attention; even the West End Cafe and Nora's restaurant have begun standing orders.
Chef David Hagedorn of the West End Cafe says that his new fall menu will feature Marvelous breads in a sandwich and custom-made boules as the centerpiece of a vegetarian entree.
"What I was most afraid of was not of failing," Furstenberg mused, "but that we would make good bread and not great bread, and people would come in and say, 'this is wonderful,' and I'd know that it's wasn't."
"What I didn't think would happen," he says, no longer worried, "is that people would come in here all day long."