Samuel Fromartz made his way to his current standing as one of Washington’s leading self-described “bread nerds” by a circuitous route. His first job, in 1985, was for Reuters, the news agency, for which he wrote the news ticker that flickers above the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, before moving into broader business journalism for the agency. In 1997 he left Reuters to go freelance, but in 2008 a magazine for which he’d done steady work “wouldn’t be needing my services anymore” thanks to the crash of that same year. He turned to a friend who was about to start a travel magazine — “A travel magazine in a near depression, the worst since the 1930s, when airline seats were going begging? I didn’t ask” — and when she wondered if he had any story ideas, he wasted no time:
“ ‘Sure,’ I stammered, trying to think of something fast. ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to visit Paris and work in a boulangerie, because I’ve never been able to make a true baguette.’ Then I launched into the backstory: How I’d been baking at home for more than a decade, and how I always thought I could benefit from doing a stint at a real bakery. . . . After all, I spit out, a new wave of French artisan bakers had rescued bread — that national cultural symbol — from years of neglect, bringing back truly great loaves. So yes, maybe ten days in Paris would do it. Could I line this up in a couple of weeks and go soon after that? Maybe get the article in on time for their premier issue? ‘Sure,’ I replied, knowing not one baker in Paris. Three weeks later, early in 2009, I was on a jet to Charles De Gaulle airport, surrounded by rows and rows of empty seats.”
Thus began the adventure that produced not merely a magazine article but, far more important for present purposes, this engaging and informative book. The account herein of his days with the Parisian baker Arnaud Delmontel draws heavily on the magazine piece, but it is a relatively small part of a book that is about, among many things, the return of artisan baking in France and its rise in the United States, the cultivation of wheat here and abroad, the magic and mystery of sourdough starters, and by no means least, the education of a baker.
I have never met Fromartz, who lives in Washington, nor have I ever tasted his bread, but I have not-inconsiderable, if wholly amateur, experience at bread-baking. In the fall of 1973 I received a review copy of James Beard’s “Beard on Bread” and decided, God knows why, to try out some of his recipes. Fromartz doesn’t much admire Beard’s methods or recipes for home baking, but they were good enough for me. From there I graduated to Bernard Clayton’s “Complete Book of Breads” (unmentioned anywhere by Fromartz), which remained my baking bible until eight years ago, when I moved into a smallish apartment that didn’t have enough kitchen counter space and quit baking. I was never much of a baker, certainly not by Fromartz’s exacting standards, but I enjoyed bopping dough around the counter and came to value excellence in baking.
Fromartz has gone much further in the direction of excellence than I could ever have imagined. He dates his interest in it to his arrival in Washington in the mid-1990s, when “artisan bread was starting to become popular” in many places but not here. Mark Furstenberg, “a rare local baker of renown, known for his crusty and critical mien,” told him that Washington “didn’t have a great tradition of bread because it didn’t have a strong base of immigrants, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, even Baltimore,” and:
“What Washington had instead were lobbyists, the federal government, and big wholesale bakeries that fed the restaurants, grocery stores, and numerous hotels. A popular sandwich joint, Taylor, which opened a decade after I arrived, even trucked its trademark sesame loaves all the way from Philadelphia, though, facing one too many breakdowns of its van on I-95, it finally prevailed on a local bakery to make the bread instead. Apart from Breadline, which Furstenberg owned and ran for several years, there wasn’t a single notable bakery in town where the bread was baked in the back and sold in the front.”
So Fromartz, “prodded by the simple quest for a decent loaf of bread in a city largely devoid of it” — a situation that, alas, hadn’t much changed in the intervening decade and a half — began baking bread himself, learning by trial and error, endless practice, and the counsel of a few books he came to trust. But he was vexed by his inability to make a satisfactory baguette — tell me about it — until he made his hegira to Paris. It is at this point that more than a few readers, myself included, will run into a bit of trouble with “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” for here Fromartz veers off into fairly technical stuff. He is otherwise a most engaging writer, but when he goes high tech — “Amylase enzymes located in the outermost layer of the endosperm, called the aleurone, come alive. They flow through the endosperm and begin to break down starch, a polysaccharide, made of long chains of sugar molecules,” et cetera — he too often loses me, as that passage sounds less like bread-baking than whale-mating. The fault, I have no doubt, is my own, but I much prefer the parts of his book in which Fromartz talks with other bakers and visits the places where they go about their business.
Among these is Mike Zakowski, who had forsaken “the grind of the baking trade” to run his own small shop in California’s wine country. With two teammates he “was jockeying to represent the United States at the 2012 World Cup of Baking, the Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie.” A committed free spirit, Zakowski worked out of a shipping container in his back yard, but he made it to the Coupe du Monde during “the global baking show EuroPain outside Paris.” There, he came very close to a triumph: “The U.S. team placed second, just after Japan, and only losing by a few points. Taiwan came in third. It was the first time that a European team failed to win a place on the podium, signaling perhaps that French bread is no longer very French.”
Certainly it is now possible to get a reasonably good loaf of bread in many places in this country, though as Fromartz acknowledges, the demands of mass production will continue to make the baking and marketing of such bread a distinctly minuscule undertaking, doubtless limited primarily to the big cities with strong immigrant influences as well as a more demanding and affluent customer base. Part of me wishes that Fromartz would abandon his journalistic endeavors and open up his own bakery (preferably very near where I live in the heart of Washington), but he knows far better than I that such is not an easy life, with long hours and low profit margins. We’ll have to settle for this book instead, which is a nice consolation prize.
Fromartz will be at Politics and Prose on Monday at 7 p.m.
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT LOAF
A Home Baker’s Odyssey
By Samuel Fromartz
Viking. 306 pp. $26.95