Good Bread is Back
Steven Laurence Kaplan is serious about French bread. The man has been knighted not once but twice by the French government for his contributions to the "sustenance and nourishment" of French culture. I think there can be little argument that his latest book, Good Bread Is Back, will become the canonical book on 20th century French baking, not only in English but in French too. That said, the book occasionally leaves one hungry for more.
The narrative is at its strongest when describing the historical development of French bread, how in the post-war years bakers and consumers, after years of deprivation, longed to eat something lighter and whiter. Thus they welcomed the development of machine mixing techniques that produced a much fluffier, albeit some what tasteless, loaf. Only after years of declining bread consumption in France did bakers admit to themselves that something had been lost in the transition from artisan to mechanized baking. By then the competition from industrial baking had also begun to nibble away at sales. Only in the last 15 years or so have bakers recognized that they must return their focus to quality if they want to differentiate their products from the competition and reclaim their singular importance in French culture and the French diet.
One of the chapters that strikes me as the most interesting (at least to the home baker) but the least fulfilling is one in which he outlines a scoring system for measuring the quality of bread. Something akin to the way wine connoisseurs have a shared vocabulary for describing wines, Kaplan proposes a framework for describing bread that encompasses taste, smell, mouthfeel, appearance, even "bread intuition." It is a compelling idea, but I can't say that having finished the book I feel any better equipped to hold such a discussion. Perhaps this is something he will elaborate more on in the future. With another rise or two it could develop into something quite interesting.
I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn't recommend it to the casual home baker. There are interesting tid-bits in here for even casual bakers, such as comments from various star bakers in France that make clear that the approach to making something as simple as a baguette continues to vary immensely from bakery to bakery: one guy does an overnight poolish, another a single extremely slow fermentation, another some other technique. But much of this book is only of interest to Francophiles, professional bakers, or one interested in labor unions or post-war Europe (which I am). Or this would be a good book to read if you are going to visit Paris and want to know which boulangeries to visit. Kaplan has visited just about all of them.