The first bread I remember well was a huge round white Italian loaf that came in a paper bag and was bought at the Ainslie shops in Canberra, the city where I was born.
On my fourteenth birthday, mum took me to Canberra for a shopping trip and we stayed in a little hotel and I spent all morning toasting slices of bread and eating them with sliced ham.
Yesterday, I needed to make some breadcrumbs for a chicken parmigiana I was making for a catering gig with a local fly fishing outfitter [Kootenai Canyon Anglers]
Good bread like that crusty Italian loaf has been hard to come by in Troy, Montana until recently, with several local bakers at the farmers market now selling excellent loaves.
But the market is only on Fridays, so I went to the store and stared for a while, trying not to breathe in the sweet chemically smell of the bread aisle.
A sea of soft white and brown bread looked back at me, bread I knew would turn to a gummy paste in the food processor.
I needed a dry, open-crumbed bread – the type of bread for which breaded foods were invented to use up, along with the classic old bread dishes like Panzanella, Fattoush, bread pudding and that Spanish soup with bread and almonds.
There’s a casual assumption that such bread can be found in the US – a food mag I subscribe to, Bon Appetit, often ends a recipe with “serve with crusty bread,” as though such a thing is easy to find.
But crusty bread is harder to find than other hard-to-find ingredients. Sumac, leaf gelatin, nigella seeds and Korean chilli can be ordered online, while fresh bread is a purely local delicacy.
Recent trips to Denver, Colorado and Seattle, Washington showed me that finding good bread is not a rural problem.
At the farmer’s market in Arvada, Denver, there were superb fresh peaches and melons whose stems were still dripping from where they had been pulled from the vine. But I knew at first glance that the bakery stall was baking quick yeasted bread – puffy oversized croissants with no visible layers and fat white “French” loaves prevailed.
Trips to two huge supermarkets and a natural grocer also yielded zero loaves of crusty bread, and we were content with an organic, seeded loaf which somehow still had the same texture as soft white bread.
[If you can, support your local bakery or farmers market baker instead of buying supermarket bread – you’ll avoid the chemicals which mean bread can have a best by date three weeks in the future]
Apparently, Christopher Columbus brought sourdough culture [a tangy, tasty wild yeast used exclusively before commercial yeasts overtook] with him on the boat in 1492 – but the American bread situation has gone steadily downhill since then, to arrive at this:
What makes Americans so fond of pappy white bread? is it a history of dental problems that make chewing a crust too difficult? a love of commercialisation? or is it just that when Columbus’ sourdough was abandoned, people forgot what good bread tastes like and they’ve never remembered?
It’s ironic that there is at face value so much choice around bread in this country. Visit any diner and order a breakfast plate and the waitress will drill you with options for your accompanying toast:
“We have wheat, white, sourdough, English muffins, bagels, rye, marbled rye …”
But the bread all tastes the same [except when there is a caraway involved].
Rye bread often has a tiny percentage of actual rye flour, and is not even made brown with the traditional sweetener – molasses – but is coloured with caramel dye.
Of course, there is a time and a place for pappy white bread. Soft white bread is popular in Australia too – and sometimes it’s the best bread for the job, as it is in the case of fairy bread [an Australian tradition for birthday parties – heavily buttered white bread covered with sprinkles and cut into triangles].
At home in Australia, at our monthly market in Candelo, the primary school still sells fat sausages on a stick and hamburgers with grilled onions, sliced tomato and shredded iceberg lettuce sandwiched between buttered white bread, which they’ve done since the early eighties.
No other bread would do for the price, and I still think about how my teeth made drag marks in the thin white bread.
When we first lived the USA, Haakon used to make bread for us – a quick, yeasted half white-half wheat [wholemeal, in Australia] everyday bread that filled the hole and was infinitely better than anything you could get at the store.
I sometimes rolled the loaves in sesame seeds before they baked to add a crunchy coating.
When we ran out, or I was alone for awhile, I bought sourdough English muffins to eat with my breakfast egg. They were white and slightly sour tasting, but not actually sourdough – just another soft, white bread.
I’d toast them to the point of burning, seeking a bit of crunch and chew.
Around that same time, I started playing with a no-knead bread recipe, which relies on an overnight ferment, wet dough and extremely hot bake in a dutch oven to achieve a thick brown crust and nice air pockets.
I found making the recipe for one loaf tiresome, but I took some of the methods of making no-knead bread and applied them to Haak’s yeast bread recipe. I would make the dough very wet, add just a half teaspoon of yeast, and let it sit as long as I wanted – a long, slow ferment made for complex flavour without having to tend to a culture in the fridge.
This method works well for pizza dough and other flatbreads too – just make the dough and let it sit, either at room temperature for a few days, or in the fridge for up to a week.
But without the steam from a lidded dutch oven, achieving a crust was impossible, even when I used a steam bath [a tray of hot water in the oven while the bread bakes, used when making crusty bread like bagettes].
In my quest for breadcrumbs yesterday, I found a plastic bag with something small and hard in it – the end of a good, crusty loaf from my friend Madeline’s Farmer’s Market stall – but it was powdery and blue.
And then! another bag. Another partial loaf. And this one smells as it should: of wheat, salt and sour.
After my catering dinner is made and delivered, the kids are in bed and it’s finally dark, I salvage what’s left of Madeline’s bread and toast it to eat with a slice of leftover prosciutto.
*** You can find Madeline with Mads Breads and other artisan bakers at the Troy, Montana Farmer’s Market on Fridays between 3:30-6:30 ***