Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Defense of Bread

Bread, traditionally known as the staff of life, is now public enemy # 1. It's under attack from all sides. Many Americans, some of whom are having trouble digesting wheat, are now espousing a gluten-free regimen (which forbids wheat), and the Paleo Diet, which eliminates bread altogether. But let it be known that I'm holding my ground amidst the growing number of nay-sayers. I'm a carb lover—I still eat bread, pasta (made with wheat flour and eggs,) whole grain cereal, muffins, cookies, and more, and I feel fine!

  My friend Anna, artist and soup-maker,  sent me an interview with Michael Pollan which originally appeared as a podcast on "Inquiring Minds." In the interview Mr Pollan—best selling author and agricultural activist—debunks the Paleo Diet and offers five concrete suggestions for eating healthfully. Below, I've printed suggestion #2, which speaks about the healthful aspects of my topic, bread.

2." Humans can live on bread alone. Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.
In Cooked, Pollan describes how bread might have been first created: Thousands of years ago, someone probably in ancient Egypt discovered a bubbling mash of grains and water, the microbes busily fermenting what would become dough. And unbeknownst to those ancient Egyptians, the fluffy, delicious new substance had been transformed by those microbes. Suddenly the grains provided even more bang for the bite.
As UC-Davis food chemist Bruce German told Pollan in an interview, “You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread.” Microbes start to digest the grains, breaking them down in ways that free up more of the healthful parts. If bread is compared to another method of cooking flour — basically making it into porridge — “bread is dramatically more nutritious,” says Pollan.
Still, common bread made from white flour and commercial yeast doesn’t have the same nutritional content as the slowly fermented and healthier sourdough bread you might find at a local baker. Overall, though, bread can certainly be part of a nutritious diet. (At least, for those who don’t suffer from celiac disease.) "    

      I was introduced to good bread by my mother, who started baking her own loaves in the 1950s when she couldn't find delicious, healthy bread in Milwaukee. Wonder Bread was ubiquitous at that time, but somehow she discovered the recipe for Cornell bread, developed by Professor Clive McKay at  Cornell University's Dept. of nutrition, and she started baking bread regularly. Her loaves, with healthful additions of soy flour, wheat germ and dry milk, emerged from the oven yeasty and fragrant. But truth be told, my sister and I preferred packaged white "cardboard" bread for our sandwiches. What did we know?

Even when I moved to Berkeley, except for the famous crusty San Francisco sourdough loaves from commercial bakeries like Toscana and Colombo, it was difficult to find good bread; so I followed in my mother's footsteps and started baking my own.

The Complete Book of Breads by Bernard Clayton, 1973

Luckily, Bernard Clayton, a writer and editor in the Business School at Indiana University, had just published his Complete book of Breads. Baking my way through his well-organized roster of recipes kept me busy and well-fed for a decade. At that juncture, bakeries were springing up that satisfied my particular standards. In 1976 Joe and Kass Schwin started grinding whole wheat flour and producing healthy, 100% whole-wheat loaves at their mill in Berkeley; they named their company Vital Vittles. They later sold the bakery to faithful employees, and the bread is as good as ever. I especially like the three-seed and the flax-seed oat breads.  

During the '80s I read rave reviews about the bread made in Paris by Lionel Poilane. On a trip there, I made a special effort to visit the boulangerie at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi to sample the "Miche," their signature loaf,  and the beguiling apple tarts hot from the oven. I was very impressed and have remained a life-long devotee. The Poilane ovens and boulangerie are in the fashionable sixth arrondisement. When I visit Paris I always stay near the bakery, at Hotel de Sevres, a quaint little hotel I found while wandering around the quartier that first magical time. I still like to pick up breakfast goodies from Poilane every morning— just add cafe au lait and I have the perfect petit-dejeuner

Poilane at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris
The signature Miche Poilane

 Times have changed here in the Bay Area and throughout the US as a swell of artisan bakers are busy producing fabulous breads that equal those of Poilane in Paris. Husband and wife team Chad Roberts and Elisabeth Prueitt traveled to France after graduating from culinary school and studied with French bakers to master breadmaking in the Poilane tradition. When they returned home they chose Point Reyes Station, CA to build a wood-fired oven and bake bread. They first sold Chad's bread and Elisabeth's pastries at the Berkeley Farmers' Market where I was lucky enough to encounter them. Immediately, I was smitten. The chewy, sour, tangy loaves with a spectacular crackly crust were unsurpassed. In 2002 the couple opened Tartine Bakery in San Francisco's Mission District and the combined bread bakery, pastry shop and cafe was an instant success. They have now added a sandwich shop and written three books. There are always long lines for their superb products at Tartine.


  I could rhapsodize at length about the quality and depth of flavor and texture of Bay Area breads but I think I will just list my personal favorites. One bite into a warm, crusty slice is worth a thousand words!

Tartine Bakery's country loaf in all its glory

Phoenix Pastaficio's olive loaves gleaming in the sun at The Berkeley Farmers' Market
Another personal favorite  is the olive bread from Phoenix Pastificio in Berkeley. They sell their  pastas, pastries and olive bread at farmers' markets in the area.

I can't get enough of the delicious olive bread from Phoenix Patificio

Epi baguettes from Acme Bakery owned by Chez Panisse baker Steve Sullivan

Seeded sourdough baguettes at the Cheese Board in Berkeley

My sympathy goes out to friends like Hali, Lee and Lynn who can't tolerate wheat and many other substances without extreme discomfort. But I have noticed that the gluten-free contingent is growing by leaps and bounds and is now well represented both on the web and in the marketplace. Thus, I feel compelled to weigh in on the side of wheat and share my love affair with bread.


  1. Yummy post! Great photos and info. Your mom was way ahead of the times! Now I'm off to get myself a slice of sourdough!

  2. GAAHH!!! This post is incredible & the pictures had me drooling and missing *real* BREAD!!! Thanks for the little sympathy shout out at the end ha!! I was smiling! With people jumping on the "gluten free" band-wagon "just because" it was refreshing to read this. Missing you terribly Taya!

  3. With heartfelt sympathy for those who cannot eat gluten:

    Great bread blog (say fast). Peanut butter and jelly with toasted Vital Vittles sesame millet!! French toast!! BLT!!! Half-pound burger openface on toasted Vital Vittles 3 Seed!! Sitting poolside in Calistoga lunching on Cheese Board seeded sourdough baguette with CHEESE, Grommet!!! Ahh, bread, let me count the ways...

  4. Thank you for the bread love and the passionate beautiful post! I would like to share some hope as we are learning more and more about ancient wheats such as einkorn, emmer (better known as farro), Kamut, and spelt. All of them are distinct from modern-day wheat and they might to be easier to digest—the research is still evolving. Most important, they taste splendid. So if you don't have coeliac disease, these ancient wheats are worth exploring.

  5. Thanks too. I repost your article here https://www.facebook.com/groups/universalbread/688011317925597/?notif_t=group_comment.

  6. I agree with Maria Speck, ancient and modern Wheats are two different stories of Bread. May we need to call modern bread differently from the real one?