To a trained observer, Samuel Fromartz looks fully at ease as he shapes the pain de campagne loaves while waiting for a final baguette to brown in his home oven on Capitol Hill. But at one point, the veteran journalist pipes up to say he’s feeling out of sorts. This is not how he’s used to baking bread.
It’s a sunny afternoon in August, and Fromartz, 56, is juggling multiple breadmaking duties while assuming the roles of educator and interviewee for a pair of journalists. He’s milling flour, hand-mixing dough, shaping baguettes, slashing proofed dough, baking loaves, answering questions, explaining complicated processes and even cleaning up after himself in his small subterranean kitchen. He is, in short, operating outside his comfort zone.
More than once, Fromartz mentions, after finishing some task, that this is when he would typically run upstairs and start answering e-mail or making phone calls related to his position as co-founder and editor in chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit group that produces the kind of deep investigative reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Later, he acknowledges to me that he was “a little flummoxed” by having to simultaneously bake bread and field questions.
“Whenever I bake more than my usual couple of loaves, I really have to focus, because it’s not my usual routine,” Fromartz says. “Just having multiple people in the kitchen was a challenge.”
That awkward, specimen-under-a-microscope feeling is common among journalists who find themselves on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. But the situation is compounded for Fromartz: As he explains in his brilliant new memoir/breadmaking book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf” (Viking), “baking was the antithesis of writing, my version of chopping wood, crucial to maintaining my sanity amid the daily pressure of work. Cordoned off from writing, baking offered a brief reprieve, and for many years I sought to keep it that way.”
But that was before the economic storms of 2008 and 2009, which troubled the waters of Fromartz’s freelance career at the time. He was forced to seek his daily bread — the kind that helped support the family, including his wife, Ellen, and their daughter, Nina — by transforming his sanity-restoring hobby into story fodder. Fromartz persuaded a start-up travel magazine to send him to Paris to work at Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel and study the techniques for producing a proper baguette, that slender, slowly fermented cylinder of flour, water, yeast and salt, the pinnacle of French bread. The resulting Afar magazine story documented Fromartz’s own slow rise to baguette mastery.
Fromartz returned to Washington and soon became something of a home-baking celebrity. He won a baguette contest that I hosted in 2009 while writing for the Washington City Paper. (Note: I’ve known Fromartz for years and consider him a friend and colleague.) Fromartz didn’t just win; he slaughtered the competition, including some of Washington’s most recognizable retail and wholesale bakeries such as Breadline, Panorama and the now-extinct Marvelous Market. One of the judges, the notoriously crusty Mark Furstenberg, questioned the point of the contest. No one can buy the winning baguette, the master baker told me back then, and few home bakers will have the skill and dedication necessary to replicate it.
Fair criticism, of course. The point, it appears in retrospect, is that the contest propelled Fromartz further down a path that he was already starting to follow, however gingerly: He would no longer use bread-baking just as relaxation therapy. He needed to make money, and writing about bread was now an option. But more than that, influential people suddenly wanted to taste his bread. He baked loaves for Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and the patron saint of the locavore movement, for a charity dinner at Bob Woodward’s house in early 2010. Later that same year, Viking accepted Fromartz’s pitch to write a book about bread and his pursuit of the perfect loaf.
When he signed the deal, Fromartz joked that he wouldn’t write a memoir along the lines of “I was a drug addict dying on the streets, and I was saved by being a baker.” Instead, he would stitch together his own adventures with those of bakers already leading the charge of the artisan bread movement in Europe and the United States, embroidering the stories with bits of bread history. Except it didn’t quite work out that way for the Brooklyn native, the son of a Japanese-American mother and a Jewish father whose parents emigrated from Russia.
Soon after he started researching the book. traveling to cities near and far, Fromartz realized how difficult some of the reporting would be. Bakers often spend their nights alone with dough mixers, bread loaders and deck ovens, surrounded by clouds of flour and the smell of baguettes caramelizing in a hot oven. They don’t tend to blather on and make the kind of statements that generate good copy. What’s more, Fromartz learned that many bakers had followed parallel paths: They’d moved slowly but obsessively from amateur to professional.
“I didn’t really want to focus on the bakers’ stories exclusively because they were kind of similar,” Fromartz says, “and then there was their reticence factor.”
The book that he ultimately wrote is a mix of memoir, history, agriculture, science and practically everything else associated with breadmaking, all neatly stuffed into 300-plus pages. The book includes long, exacting multi-page recipes to help readers re-create the baguette, flatbread, stretch bread and other loaves that Fromartz has been perfecting over 17 years of home baking. Not that the author expects his book, simply by your reading it, to transform you into a master baker.
“The more I baked, the more I realized that the recipe was the least of my concerns. Far more important were the techniques, which were difficult to explain in a step-by-step format precisely because they depend on touch and feel,” Fromartz writes in his introduction.
“So let’s just say that I made a lot of bad bread by following very good recipes,” the author continues. “I expect if you follow the few recipes I offer in this book you will at first make poor loaves, too.”
That kind of humility is, in part, what delights bread historian Steven Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith professor of European history, emeritus, at Cornell University and author of “Good Bread Is Back” (Duke University Press Books, 2006). A fellow Brooklyn native raised on Jewish “corn” rye bread, Kaplan has been an outspoken critic of the fast-rising, mass-produced breads that almost killed off France’s artisan bakeries, where the loaves require many hours of fermentation and a practiced hand to mix and shape the dough. Kaplan has been such a vocal critic, in fact, that he has “angered a lot of bakers in the U.S.,” Fromartz says.
While Kaplan finds small faults with Fromartz’s book, he says Fromartz “basically gets it right, and he gets it right with a humble swagger.” Kaplan says bread is complex, but for Fromartz, “rather than being daunted by that, it beguiles him.” More than that, Kaplan detects an almost “Proustian” quality to “In Search of the Perfect Loaf”: The writing is colored by the formative bread memories of Fromartz’s Brooklyn youth, even as he digs into the contemporary problems of how to make a good baguette at home.
That “makes him probably the best writer about bread that we’ve had in a long time,” Kaplan says. “He approaches it with a kind of humility, the humility of the adventurer, the explorer, the traveler. The result is for the reader, even for the jaded reader that I am, a really quite engaging and enlightening” book.
Part of Fromartz’s journey has been to put himself in front of bakers who know more than he. His goal, as he traveled from Paris to Portland, Ore., was “to learn one thing from every baker.” From Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco, Fromartz learned that “dough could really take a lot more water than I thought it could, and you could still manipulate it.” From Roland Feuillas at a small boulangerie in the south of France, Fromartz learned the benefits of freshly milled ancient grains. And from Tim Healea at Little T American Baker in Portland, he learned how better to shape loaves.
As we stand in Fromartz’s kitchen, it’s the shaping that fascinates me. Fromartz has his hands cupped around a wet dough that he has mixed for the pain de campagne loaves. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, he rotates the dough while simultaneously stretching the outer skin with the bottom of his palms and his pinkie fingers. It’s a technique that I read about over and over in his book and never understood until I saw Fromartz do it. It reminds me of something that Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Bread Bible,” said during a recent interview: “Everything about bread you learn yourself” just by performing the task, over and over and over again.
The French, Beranbaum says, have a term for it: Il faut mettre la main à la pâte, which roughly translates to “it’s necessary to put your hands to the dough.” Handling dough and baking bread, in other words, are not intellectual exercises that can be absorbed via books alone, even though the publishing industry has, in recent years, flooded the market with such volumes. (A far cry from the early 2000s, when Beranbaum’s publishers weren’t sure there would be a market for a bread book, she says.)
Fromartz understands this sensory concept as well as anyone. He has followed the intellectual path since his days as an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland and a grad student at the University of Chicago, where he studied international relations, foreign policy and economic policy. While baking bread calls for mathematical precision in measuring ingredients, it doesn’t require much brain power to mix and shape the dough. Those steps, he says, are learned through your hands, which have the same ability as your brain to remember and forget skills.
“That to me is so special,” Fromartz says about his hand education. “I had no idea that the craft of it opened up this whole different way of learning.”
Which might explain why it’s difficult to answer interview questions and shape loaves at the same time; the two tasks require the full attention of different body parts, as if you were taking an important call while trying to run the high hurdles. Not that Fromartz ever plans to deprive himself of those quiet, mind-soothing moments with bread. He still bakes a lot of loaves at home.
“I did worry that if I wrote about it, that it would lose that place it had in my life,” Fromartz says. “That hasn’t happened. I don’t think I’ll let it happen.”
Fromartz will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.