IS BALTIMORE a hard-crust or a soft-crust town? I wondered about this as I watched a new bread oven, a 30,000-pound, wood-burning behemoth, fire up at Wegmans, the gigantic new food market at the Hunt Valley Town Centre.
The store won't open until the first Sunday in October but the oven is so massive and so old-world that it takes two weeks to slowly reach 450 degrees Fahrenheit at a pace that would not crack the hearth. Constructed by masons flown in from Spain, and burning cords of wood trucked in from Harford County, the oven can bake about 85 loaves of bread at a time.
Seeing an oven of this size, I couldn't help but gloat that those no-bread diets that were the rage a few years ago are looking pretty dead now.
Also, as somebody who has baked a few loaves, I couldn't stop myself from imagining the kind of crust I might get if I baked bread in that oven.
Bakers dream about crusts, fantasizing about the baguette with a crust that shatters like glass, the rye with a crust that almost cuts you when you bite it. Whether people can swallow such extreme creations is, of course, another matter. So most folks in the bread-making business bake something that sells.
Mike Sugden, bakery manager for Wegmans, told me that breads with a variety of crusts would emerge from the new oven. The breads will be displayed whole, never sliced, he said. Slicing will be done upon customer request, by hand. Based on customer response over the next weeks, the Wegmans bakers will get a feeling of what type of crust local bread eaters like.
Judging by conversations I had with a number of established local bread bakers, those eaters seem to be a divided lot. There are the hard-crusters and the soft-crusters, often gathered at the same family table.
Age is one factor in the division, Ned Atwater said.
"People older than me tend to like soft crusts, younger than me go for the hard crust," said Atwater who is 48 and runs Atwater's bakery in the Belvedere Square shopping center.
Atwater bakes a number of breads, including a peasant wheat bread and country white that, in his words, have textures and crusts "with substance, let you know that you are chewing something."
Such breads, he said, are popular with the folks who frequent the area's outdoor farmers' markets where he began selling his wares 7 1/2 years ago. While the majority of his customers prefer this "European style" crust, Atwater began getting requests for bread with a kinder, gentler texture when he opened the Belvedere Square store several years ago.
Among the requesters was his mother, Jo Atwater, who is in her 70s and told him, he said, that much as she would like to, she can't work her way through some of his chewier creations. Being a dutiful son, and a smart businessman, Atwater listened to his mother and is now baking a Celtic harvest bread with buttermilk and honey and a less-intimidating crust.
Stone Mill Bakery began turning out its cutting-edge, European-style breads almost 15 years ago. Yet its workers occasionally will hear requests to soften things up, said Dylan Meyers, the bakery office manager.
Such requests are handled in two ways, Meyers said. Explanations are given that the bakery follows European tradition and that the crusts of some baked goods are supposed to be substantial. The bakers work hard, fermenting the dough and adding steam to the oven to produce that crust, he said. Secondly, Meyers said, customers with a yen for the softer breads are steered to ones that use brioche dough.
Crust preferences vary, even within a family, Meyers said, and offered an example from a recent Labor Day cookout at his home. The crisp Stone Mill bakery kaiser rolls that Meyers had planned to serve with grilled hamburgers did not meet the approval of his 17-year-old son, Josh. So a trip was made to a store to get a more conventional, softer hamburger bun.
Antonio Iannaccone, a native of southern Italy who bakes breads at his Piedigrotta bakery on the Central Avenue site that for years housed the Marinelli family bakery, views the bread-texture issue in terms of what you grew up eating.
"In America much of the bread is square, something people make toast with. In Europe the bread is hard on the outside, soft on the inside, but not so soft it sticks to your tongue."
I agree and, as a hard-edge type, I am hoping that the new bread oven makes this town even crustier.