Friday, August 05, 2011

Baltimore Battle Baguette

Baguettes (or Ficelle) from (top to bottom): Bonaparte, Stone Mill Ficelle, Atwater's and Stone Mill 7 Grain.

In Paris, I have my favorite baguette baker: Stephane Secco. Just a block and a half from my hotel in the 7th, in the space formerly occupied by the famed Jean-Luc Poujauran, is Secco and his brilliant bread. So in love with his baguette that I extended a trip to Paris in 2008 so that I could be there an extra day (a Tuesday, he's closed Monday) to fill my luggage with his baguettes.

When I arrived in Paris again last summer, I was ready to defend Secco and my penchant for his bread - even when I heard about the gran prix winner Djibril Bodian of Le Grenier a Pain Abbesses in Montmartre. Off to the Metro we went to seek out the long lines leading to Le Grenier. With Monsieur Bodian's baguette (or 3) in hand, warm and fresh from the oven at three in the afternoon, I tore off a piece and gave it a taste. Woah - the gran prix? Truly, an amazing baguette.

Return now to Washington DC where an April lunch at Central starts off with a plate of bread landing on our table. It's crusty and light, and chewy, and airy - utter bread perfection. I dream that be kissed by God to make bread this good.

In each of these cases, the results were stark and clear: amazing. No ambiguity. No guessing. No "it's pretty good". None of that "I think it's decent" wishy-washy-ness. Stellar examples of undeniable bread genius. Genius that stands out and demands your attention. No questions. No guesses. Absolute authority.

I'm reminded of this as I scour our little city for a baguette to use at Spro. Where is that baguette? Who are the masters of baguette in this town? A year ago, I asked a French patisserie friend this very question and the answer was sobering. Non.

But I believe in our little city. I believe that someone here has got to be producing stellar baguette. Perhaps not exactly like Secco, Poujauran or Bodian, but maybe something tasty, something remotely close? Please???

Left to Right: Stone Mill 7 Grain, Atwater's, Stone Mill Ficelle & Bonaparte.

For the tasting, I rounded up all the baguettes I could find in Baltimore. I excluded the grocery stores and any sort of chain store and looked for bakers with wholesale arms that could deliver. This left us with Atwater's, Stone Mill and Bonaparte. I purchased the bread at Stone Mill's cafe, Atwater's booth at the Catonsville Farmers Market and Bonaparte from their retailer The Wine Source in Hampden.

By the time I got to Stone Mill Cafe at 10am, they had already sold out of their baguette, leaving only their ficelle. Assured that the recipe and bread is the same as the baguette, just a different, thinner shape, I went with one for $3.25 and a seven grain baguette for $3.95. Note: if at all possible, avoid the Greenspring Station, their clientele is pushy and difficult.

The interesting thing about Atwater's is that their baguette ($2.00) is cheaper at the Farmers Market than at their Belvedere Market location ($2.85). At The Wine Source, a Bonaparte baguette can be had for $2.75 each.

Once back in the kitchen, we tore into the bread. They ranged from light to slightly dense, slightly chewy to more "bread like". By this time, it had been many hours since they were baked so we tossed them into the oven to heat and see how they would perform. The Atwater's baguette turned out to be chewy and rubbery before giving way. The ficelle was light and lovely. Bonaparte's example had the thickest and most angry-looking crust. But the surprise was the seven grain baguette. It had an airy texture with a nutty flavor that I found surprisingly appealing.

All in all, decent efforts from our local bakers, but not quite that medium crunchy crustiness with light and chewy interior that begs for a slathering of butter. These baguettes called for butter because they needed it to enhance the experience. The ideal baguette doesn't need the butter but you spread it on because it makes what is already sky high, ethereal.

In the end, I'm sad to say that any choice in Baltimore baguette today is a compromise. They're decently good but not wicked. They satisfy the need for crusty bread but don't inspire. At Central in DC, I desire to eat there for the bread alone. In fact, I could eat just the bread and butter and be completely inspired.

And isn't that what we really want in a baguette?