A few weeks ago, the Food section gathered examples of French bread for a comparative tasting. If the retailer called the bread a baguette, we deemed it fair game.
But who should do the tasting? We wanted our judges' credentials to be impeccable and decided they had to be French (or at least have grown up in France), knowledgeable about bread and familiar with American consumer tastes.
Our choices: Michel Richard, the chef-owner of Citronelle, and an acclaimed pastry chef; Roland Mesnier, the White House pastry chef who last summer retired from the job after 25 years; and Regine Palladin, the owner of the Dupont Circle restaurant Pesce. Each of them grew up in France and witnessed the gradual rebirth of good bread after the World War II shortages. Each of them came to the United States as young adults. And -- lest there be any worry of chauvinistic favoritism -- each of them is now an American citizen.
Our judges cautioned that they would take the day's humid weather into account. They pointed out that bread baking is affected by many variables; in addition to the weather, there are differences in the amounts of gluten in flours, the chlorine in the water used to mix the bread and even the detergent used to wash the pans. "Baking is a real science," Mesnier says. "Mixing flour is as important as mixing grapes for wine."
Gathering at the chef's table at Citronelle, we assembled both the standard baguettes (sometimes called sweet) and the sourdough versions but the judges weren't told which baguette came from which bakery. There was one clear winner and one distant runner-up. Several breads were considered nothing like real French breads but were, in the words of Mesnier, "probably pleasing to American tastes." Three got mixed reviews, and several were judged so wanting that they evoked comments such as "no flavor whatsoever," "if you gave this to your mother-in-law, she would never come back," and "the baker was sick that day."
PRETTY GOOD TO EXCELLENT
The winner: Bread Line (sold not only at the shop at 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, but also at Marvelous Markets in the area and Patisserie Poupon in Georgetown).
This bread was praised for its appearance -- in particular its color ("looks like a real French baguette") -- and the typical slashes atop the bread. The judges also applauded its crunchy crust, its aroma, its nicely aerated interior with large uneven holes, its well-mixed dough and its hollow sound. The only caveat: a slight chemical taste they suspected came from the water used to mix the flour or the detergent used to wash the pan.
The runner-up: Firehook.
In particular, the tasters liked the flavor and aroma of this baguette, which they recognized as a sourdough bread. "You could slice it and serve it for dinner." But they found its crust a little tough and its interior too dense for sandwiches.
NOTHING LIKE A FRENCH BAGUETTE, BUT 'PROBABLY PLEASING TO AMERICAN TASTES'
Giant: Good news to any family looking for a French bread shape to use for hamburgers or sandwiches. But bad news to anyone sensitive to what the judges described as an unpleasant yeasty aroma.
Vie de France (both standard and sourdough): The judges complained about a lack of taste in each, and observed that the ovens hadn't been hot enough to produce good crusts. However, they thought American children would love the soft interiors and cakelike structure, especially for sandwiches.
Whole Foods (the standard baguette): Too pale and no aroma, they agreed, but pretty and appealing to Americans.
Au Bon Pain: This bread smells the way bread should, the tasters said -- slightly yeasty and lightly salty. But the rest was disappointing, especially the appearance and the very dense texture, which indicated to the judges that the bread hadn't been allowed to rise enough.
Marvelous Market's sourdough baguette (which is made by Uptown Bakery): This bread had traces of the characteristics the judges looked for, but not enough of them. The light sourdough smell and taste and the crust weren't bad, they said. But the texture was tough and too dense. And the appearance was marred by a bubbly surface.
Patisserie Poupon from Bonaparte Bakery: The judges wondered if it was an off day for this well-known and admired bakery. They liked the bread's aroma and suspected it had been made in a woodburning stove. But they found its crust too tough, its interior too dense, its color odd ("like a country bread") and its flavor lacking.
To be fair, it's unrealistic to expect supermarket breads to taste like good French baguettes, even if the label claims that status. That said, the baguettes from Harris Teeter, Safeway (both the plain and the sourdough), Wegman's and Whole Foods (sourdough) were disappointing.