I’ve got a word problem. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” This Humpty Dumpty theory of language was rightly doubted by the redoubtable Alice. Certainly words don’t mean whatever I want them to. But that’s me, and I’m not a character in Through the Looking Glass. As far as I know.
Others wield more vocabulary power. The government, for instance, has been rearranging the meaning of “organic” for a while now. Drug companies have always tried doctoring the meanings of useful words like “safe” and “effective.” And, back in the food world, “home-cooked” is drained of meaning. “Wild mushrooms” means “not the fat white ones.”
“Artisan” is the latest adjective on the word-chopping block and my word problem for the day. You would think that artisan is a pretty clear word. An artisan product is a product an artisan makes. And an artisan is someone skilled at a craft. So, we use “artisan cheese” for those non-factory cheeses made by real cheese makers–crafts-people, not Kraft’s-people.
And we use “artisan bread” to name the handcrafted products of bakers who adhere to traditional methods of bread making. Or so it was, during the great American bread revival of the last few decades.
Although there were always pockets of good bread in the United States, those grim years we now call “the Wonder Bread years” lasted four decades, the ’30s through the ’60s. Flavor faded. Family bakeries in ethnic enclaves of large cities were the endangered standard-bearers for honest bread. But as hippie bread slowly evolved out of its doorstop mode, as American cuisine came into its own, demand and supply cooperated in reviving real bakeries. Sourdough techniques blossomed. The flavorful, crusty loaf was grabbing real market share.
Now there are hundreds and hundreds of bakeries committed to using only natural ingredients and traditional methods. At www.bbga.org/member.html, you can see a list of many of the bakery-members of the Bread Bakers’ Guild of America, an organization devoted to the interests of artisan bread making. Here’s the guild’s definition: “Perhaps the closest we can come to a definition of artisan baking is to say that it is the work of a knowledgeable, skilled and conscientious baker who is attempting to make the best possible product.”
We now have bookshelves full of bread baking books to tell us how. Good bread baking is subtle. Leaving aside specialty breads filled with olives or cherries or raisins, bread is simple: flour, water, salt and leavening. From those few ingredients an entire galaxy of bread arises: flatbread, baguette, boule, focaccia, fougasse, ciabatta. They are all brought to your palette through techniques of proportion, preparation, timing, fermentation and baking. And all are very tricky and subject to subtle effects. Especially tricky is the leavening known as sourdough, a symbiotic culture of certain wild yeasts and lactobacilli. And the fifth ingredient, crucial to many breads and particularly to sourdoughs, is time. Time, as they sort of say, is the essence.
So, a perishable product, requiring skilled craftspeople, using quality ingredients with long production times. It’s your standard recipe for bankruptcy. Or at least for a business that isn’t rolling in cash. But many good bakeries have been thriving, and we’ve even been blessed with a few in the Triangle.
With bread knowledge on the upswing, on both the producer and consumer side, where’s the fly in the ferment? It’s in the redefinition of “artisan” I was alluding to, if not whining about.
But that redefinition brings up another word: parbaked. Parbaking is one solution to the problem of the missing bakery. Suppose I live in Littlecity, U.S.A. Littlecity doesn’t have a sophisticated artisan bakery. I’m stuck with preservative-rich, cottony simulacra of bread. Or I have to learn how to bake. But suddenly, my local supermarket is offering me fresh-baked crusty loaves and it says, right there on the sign, “Artisan Sourdough Loaves Fresh-Baked on Premises.” And, they’re pretty good. A big improvement. I peer behind the counter; hmm, no mixers. I see the ovens, though. I see pale bread shoveled in. I see browned bread.
The baker doesn’t exist. Far away, say in Los Angeles, is a large machine-filled warehouse where tens of thousands of loaves are baked every day, by people somewhat more skilled than the supermarket shovelers. The real baker–Nancy Silverton–is resting at her villa in Italy. She may even be baking. Probably not parbaking. Far, far away, her parbaked bread is fermenting. It is made from sourdough ferments. Its ingredients are artisan. Insofar as machines can simulate manual labor, the technique is sort of the same. La Difference in the bread at LaBrea Bakery comes in the baking. The bread is baked until almost done, rather than done. It is then rapidly frozen. If you’ve frozen bread at home, you know the risks. As the moisture migrates from crumb to crust, the crust turns from chewy/crispy to wrinkled leather. The flash freezing gets around this.
What the supermarket does is follow the printed instructions to the letter. The bread must not defrost. It goes into a 350-degree oven for a precise period of time. It comes out far better than regular supermarket bread. It’s not as good as real bread.
The bread denizens of Littlecity are happy. Who am I, living in Bigcity or Mediumcity, to begrudge Littlecity its loaf? This is, roughly speaking, the Starbucks argument, the agribusiness argument–and all those other arguments that have meant the death of real farming and the endangered status of small independent food businesses.
What chance is there for a good local bakery opening in Littlecity now? This is no imaginary scenario. As the artisan bread scene heated up, supermarkets often bought loaves from local bakers. As parbaked arrived on the scene, about five years ago, those local bakers lost that business to big yeasti-business.
What’s oddly irksome about the parbaked phenomenon is who started it in this country. At least who started it in the realm of quality bread. One of my heroes, as cookbook author, baker and restaurateur, is Nancy Silverton. LaBrea Bakery makes magnificent breads. But five years ago, Silverton figured out the parbaking scheme–three years she sold an 80 percent stake in it to a large agribusiness conglomerate in Europe (this one: www.iaws.ie, and they own this: www.delicedefrance.co.uk, for example) for the less-than-artisanal sum of $69 million. LaBrea bread is now sold at Harris Teeter, Costco and many Whole Foods.
On one reading this gets good bread, better bread, to many people. And, maybe, once they know what good bread is like, they’ll be ready for great bread. The Starbucks analogy goes both ways. Starbucks (with undrinkable espresso, mediocre beans, overroasted coffee and unskilled baristas) has been known to be an independent-coffeehouse killer. On the other hand, it has raised the awareness of non-swill coffee in the United States. And a well-run independent coffee shop can survive in a Starbucks environment.
But I also worry. The parbaked stuff simply isn’t as good. The economic model sucks. Local is better, both in farming and artisanal work. Outsourcing that work to factory farms and factory bakeries (however good they get at simulating the product) is a false economy of scale. Quality goes down. Money flows to the wrong places. Knowledge is lost. Because real farmers and real artisan bakers are, in the currently fashionable lingo, knowledge workers.
France actually had a similar problem years ago. When I was briefly living in Paris in the 1980s, I was astonished at how bad the bread was. You had to search out the rare bakery that made decent baguettes, let alone country boules. What were most bakeries doing? Baking off frozen dough. France solved it–with a labeling law. In fact, you can’t call yourself an artisanal bakery unless you actually make the bread, beginning to end, on premises.
A simple start might be to label parbaked breads and pastries as such. (And it says, right there on the sign, “Parbaked Sourdough Loaves from Los Angeles Baked-Off Here in Littlecity.”) But of course it’s also more complicated than that. Sadly.
“The question is,” said Alice to Humpty Dumpty, “whether you can make words mean different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”