How do you recognize really good French bread? Listen to Steven Kaplan, a Cornell University history professor who has spent much of his life examining that question.
"To me there is nothing more exalting than a good baguette," he says. "Its attractive appearance seduces you and gives you an appetite to go farther. When you squeeze it, its golden brown crust should crackle and even sing. Its aroma should be a little bit sweet, a little bit toasty. There should be a good marriage between its crust and its interior crumb. When the crumb is pressed, it should spring back rapidly. Its color should be off-white and its cavities widely distributed and uneven in size. Its nutty, buttery taste should be both sweet and savory -- like a good chardonnay.
"When you split it down the middle and smell that astonishing bouquet of spices, butter and dried apricots, you say to yourself, 'I'm in heaven.' It's something so delicious you don't need butter, jelly, ham or cheese."
Kaplan's bread obsession has involved decades of research in bakeries, libraries and archives in France. He has investigated the history, significance and symbolism of French bread. He has written five books on the subject, including "Cherchez le Pain," last year's guide to the best bakeries in Paris, for which he applied his own complex rating system to the baguettes at 637 bakeries. In France, he is a television personality, a member of the French Ministry of Culture's Order of Arts and Letters and a gadfly who helped the new generation of French bakers reclaim traditional recipes.
A man with such firm opinions and high standards that the newspaper Le Figaro branded him "the ayatollah of bread," Kaplan does not speak or write about French bread in measured tones.
In his opinion, "About 65 to 70 percent of French bakers are producing a bread that is tasteless."
It's even worse on this side of the Atlantic, he says, where there's no historical memory of good bread and where, in some places, all you can get is plain, sliced supermarket bread. And where, more recently, style-conscious American retailers have adopted the term "artisanal" -- even if the bread hasn't been kneaded, fermented, fashioned and baked where it's sold, without freezing, additives or extra yeast. "There's been a hijacking of the word 'artisanal' on the American landscape," Kaplan says.
In his view, there are two primary culprits: the historical circumstances that led to the decline of bread in France during the 20th century and the current practice of "parbaking," a process used in both countries to produce bread that can seem to be traditionally made.
"Do you know what parbaking is?" he demands, speaking from his apartment in Paris where he spends as much time as he can. "It's the baking of dough that's been rapidly frozen. And that is not artisanal baking, which excludes freezing, which [in turn] impedes the flow of fermentation from reaching its apogee."
"You can get a reasonably edible bread with parbaking," he says, "as long as you don't mind that it's insipid."
Even a purist like Kaplan, however, understands that the mass market is drawn to parbaking because of the related economies of scale, labor, time and cost -- "all the advantages we associate with generic mechanization or industrialization," he says. (In the United States, parbaked breads are sold by some mass retailers, including Vie de France, which employs other methods as well, and Harris Teeter, which sells La Brea Bakery French breads that are parbaked.)
In any case, Kaplan says, the deterioration of French bread started long before parbaking, a result of the food shortages in France during the two world wars. "Both wars were tremendous jolts to the quality of bread," he says. "French bakers had to work with very, very lousy flour. There was a loss of competence and capacity for ancestral skills, and the French forgot what bread should taste like. There was a real amnesia."
The nadir was from about 1955 to 1975, he says, when industrial baking came on the scene in France, pushing aside more time-consuming artisanal recipes. Cheap postwar loans let bakers mechanize. And a method that relied on fast mechanical kneading -- a truncated approach to traditional methods of fermentation -- and additives resulted in speedily made white bread that took over the market. "It looked lush, but it was tasteless," he says.
But this was France -- the country whose pride in its culinary artistry was unsurpassed, the country that invented haute cuisine. Who would rescue its national symbol?
In 1980, French millers rose to the challenge. Concerned about the inferior quality of the bread, they offered bakers not only a better flour but also the marketing backup that would help them retain or reclaim artisanal recipes. "By 1990, there was a substantial improvement," Kaplan says.
Then in 1993, the French legal system stepped in with a decree that created the designation: "the bread of French tradition." To claim that status, the bread had to be made without any freezing during the fermentation process and without additives, amelioratives, improvers or technological help. "Once you remove all those crutches," says Kaplan, "the good baker knows that the only way to produce a dough that will stand up is by restoring the first three hours of fermentation that give the bread its aromas and taste."
These days, bakeries all over Paris proudly proclaim their allegiance to the bread of French tradition. Buying it is chic, especially among the approximately 28- to 48-year-old bourgeois bohemians known as "bo-bos."
But it costs more -- 85 to 95 cents for an ordinary baguette, and about 40 cents more for one of French tradition. "For ordinary working people, that can be a burden," Kaplan says. He suggests that those who can't afford the bread of French tradition every day serve it at their family meal on Sunday.
That's a compromise, he knows, but not nearly as significant as the one he makes when he's back at home in Upstate New York. "It's a sad state of affairs," he says.
But he remains hopeful, and he is particularly enthusiastic about the impact that Eric Kayser (whose Parisian bakery received the top score in Kaplan's guide) will have when he opens his "bread bar" soon in Los Angeles. And he's cautiously optimistic about seeing more bakers adopt authentic artisanal methods. Perhaps some of them will demand better flour without additives of any kind, he conjectures. Perhaps mills will respond with a niche flour industry. And perhaps someone will even open a mill that does stone grinding to preserve more of the grain. "There's a lot of romance attached to it," he admits.
But until then, what does he do when he's back at Cornell? He has a simple solution. "I don't eat bread," he sighs. "Sometimes I make my own. But there's no other bread I will eat."
You can ask Judith Weinraub questions about baguettes during the Food section's online chat today at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.