It doesn't matter where you live, the lament is the same. Bakeries may be as ubiquitous as gas stations, but foodies always complain that good bread is hard to find. They blame the water, the humidity, the oven, the skill of the baker, the alignment of the planets.
The problem is defining good bread is like arguing over who is more beautiful -- Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer. Few people agree. Some favor an airy French bread with a crisp crust that disintegrates into little pieces with the first bite. Others insist that the only good bread is peasant bread -- hearty and dense with a flavor so distinctive that using butter would be blasphemy. Still others want bread to taste like a meal -- stuffed with fruits and raisins or flavored with ethnic ingredients like basil, pine nuts and cheese.
To find the best bread, we asked the advice of local food professionals: Jim C. Lawson, author of "The Baltimore Ethnic Food Store Guide"; Rita Calvert, food stylist; Leslie Bloom, cookbook author and free-lance food writer; Lois Schenck, cookbook author; Sascha Wolhandler, caterer; and Jane DeMouy, Baltimore magazine restaurant critic. (See accompanying story on 2F.)
When Ms. Wolhandler first came to Baltimore 15 years ago from New York, she wasn't overly impressed with Charm City's bakeries. But these days she thinks the area has a variety of good bread -- from good rye and pumpernickel at Pariser's Bakery in Pikesville to the country loaf and fruited breads at Dorothea's Breads in Baltimore.
"Bread is very important," she says. "A good way to judge
nTC restaurant is by its bread. If the first thing they put on the table is French bread that doesn't have character, it sets the tone for the meal. They can be serving the fanciest caviar, the most succulent duck breast and overall the meal isn't great unless the bread is good."
Ms. Calvert says she looks for breads with a dense chewy factor rather than the fluffy stuff that resembles sawdust.
"If it is supposed to be a pesto bread or a bread with Cheddar cheese and bacon, I want to taste those flavors as I chew it," she says."And often I don't."
Ms. Bloom of Silver Spring says good bread should also be good for you. She has discovered Fresh Fields in Rockville, a health food bakery that produces a variety of additive-free breads. They contain no growth stimulants, antibiotics, hormones, nitrates, steroids, artificial preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, irradiation, tropical oils, refined sugars, bleached flours and hydrogenated oils. The label also boasts that the products are "free of confusion, hassle and guilt."
But, unlike some other health foods, they aren't free of flavor, according to Ms. Bloom.
"They have great flavor," she says. "I think it's a combination of ingredients and technique. A lot of them have a nice, nutty flavor. The textures are fabulous. I haven't found a bread there yet that I wouldn't buy again."
Ms. Schenck, who lives in Fells Point, looks for a bread with a crust that bites back when you bite into it. She loves texture and rejects a homogenized look and mouth feel.
"I can't stand breads that have the same texture on the outside that they have on the inside," she adds.
Flavorful breads are also important to Ms. DeMouy. She loves those that contain herbs and olives and is disappointed with breads that taste soft and mushy. Some of her favorites come from the Bakery at Broadway Market, which was named the best new bread in Baltimore magazine's 16th annual "Best of Baltimore" issue published last month.
"Bread ought to be hearty, rustic with a wonderful flavor, a crusty crust and a nicely textured interior,'" she says. "When you come across a good piece of bread you really appreciate it."