In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey is the story of a quest. Like all serious home bakers' (SHB) efforts to make good bread, the journey begins at home in his kitchen. Sam hasn't gone to culinary school, he hasn't spent years working in a bakery. He started baking his own bread for exactly the same reason I did: because there was no real bread to be had in the neighborhood he moved to. Like many beginning bakers (I plead guilty!), he first tried his hand at baguettes, which is "the equivalent of wanting to knock out a Beethoven sonata when you sit down at the piano for the first time." He failed, moved on to other breads which he learned to make well, but never forgot the unmet challenge.
So when opportunity knocked at his door several years later in the shape of a commissioned article for Afar Magazine, he jumped at the chance to go spend a week in Paris learning from Arnaud Delmontel, a baker who had won best baguette in Paris in 2007. From the long hours he put in at Delmontel's boulangerie, he learned a crucial lesson: bread baking isn't about the recipe, it is about the feel, the "visual, tactile, and auditory clues" that tell you what you should or should not do. The feel comes with time... Back at home in Washington, DC, Sam practiced, practiced, practiced and was rewarded a couple of months later when his baguettes won "best in DC" in a blind testing against professionals, a crowning achievement for a SHB!
With success came fame. Alice Waters (from Chez Panisse no less) called Sam to have him bake bread for a charity dinner she was planning to host in Washington (I remember being awed when I read about it back then.) Partly thanks to Waters, there were (and are) several great bakers in the Bay Area and over the following years, Sam visited many of them: Michel Suas, president of the San Francisco Baking Institute, Steve Sullivan, founder of The Acme Bread Company, Kathleen Weber, co-founder/owner of Della Fattoria, The Bejkr Mike Zakowski who won silver for the United States at the World Bread Cup in 2012, Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, etc.
Sam being as talented a writer as he is a baker, the reader is pulled into each of the stories. We see bakers at work in a blur of motion or relaxing when the work is done, we touch flour, we observe dough, we feel the heat of the ovens, we hear the crackling of the burnished loaves as they cool on the racks, we breathe in the aromas and like the author, we are hooked. With him, we go bakery-hopping in Paris and meet other passionate bakers, including Frédéric Pichard for whom bread dough's two-step fermentation process is akin to champagne's and who cares so much for the taste of his bread that he has a farmer grow an ancient variety of wheat exclusively for him.
Although Sam takes us to Weichardt Brot in Berlin to learn all about rye and to the South of France to interview farmer/miller/baker Roland Feuillas, the book never turns into a guidebook to the best bakeries in the United States and Europe. The reader is actually invited to bake along: there is at least one recipe per chapter, and yes, there is one for Feuillas' bread which one of my French friends - herself an accomplished baker - once described to me as the best she ever had.
Sam describes how to build and keep a starter, opens his pantry to our inquisitive eyes, lists his sources for unusual or heirloom flours (in case you don't live in an area where local grain is available or you want to try and reproduce the flavor and structure of a particular loaf), and mostly he explains, again and again, that every flour is different, that reading the dough comes with practice and that we should not be afraid to experiment and learn from our failures. He retraces a brief history of wheat (to help us understand the various baking properties and flavors of today's grains), gives us a synopsis of what goes on behind the scenes during fermentation, explores the vagaries of hydration and encourages us on our own journey to our dream loaf.
I had the good fortune to attend a conversation between Fromartz and Tartine Bakery's Chad Robertson in San Francisco the other day in honor of the launching of the book. Both lovers of whole grains, they revealed that they were not necessarily fans of loaves containing 100% of one particular grain: Sam's favorite rye bread is made with 30% wheat and Chad prefers to add cooked grains to his breads than bake with 100% wholegrain flour.
Both bakers debunked the myth that sourdough reflects a particular region (Chad started sourdough cultures in Mexico, in France and in Denmark: they all behaved the same.) If bread is good in the San Francisco area, it is because the weather is pretty mild year-round. When the temperature dips as it occasionally does, the Tartine bakers know to put the starters on higher shelves and sometimes even cover them with blankets. The fluctuations keep everything interesting. Chad prefers shaping before cold fermentation (to prevent aromas from dissipating when manipulating the dough) while Sam opts for bulk fermentation (a SHB would be hard put to fit several baskets in his or her home refrigerator).
Both like to keep their starters mild by feeding them often and using them young although Sam prefers his a tad firmer (70 to 75% hydration) to slow the pace of fermentation.
With wonder in his voice, Chad recounted that the loaf shown being made step by step in his book Tartine No 3 had actually been mixed and baked in a home baker's house in Berkeley. No staging had been involved in the photos. It was the first time he had had a chance to look at a bread out of a pot in a home situation and he had been "shocked" (his word): "The bread was like the best ever at the bakery. It was indeed the perfect loaf!"
So, readers, take heart. With practice and determination, you too can reach the Holy Grail and a book such as Sam's is a good companion to take on your journey: the author has been there, done that. You will benefit from his experience, learning over and over the most important lesson: don't overthink the dough, just observe it. (At the beginning you may need to touch it but after a while, looking should suffice. Chad confided that it drove him nuts when his bakers poked the dough and that he tried to teach them to rely on their eyes instead of their fingers.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Sam sent me an advance copy of his book. When I received it, though, I had already pre-ordered the electronic version. Once I started reading, the furthest thing from my mind was to cancel the Kindle version. In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey is a book I look forward to having at the tip of my fingers wherever and whenever I bake. But I am glad I have the print copy as well. After all, I couldn't very well ask Sam to write a dedication on my e-reader!