I admit it. I am a foodie. I am a wine snob. And…. I am a baguette fanatic.
In 1986 I made my first trip to France. My friend Robin and I went to Paris and spent 3 wonderful weeks with our friend Paul. I came to love Paris and I came to love French food. Three years later, my wife and I spent our own 2 amazing weeks in Paris – visiting a friend at IRCAM, MEETING Olivier Messiaen, visiting every possible museum… and EATING. Almost 2 decades elapsed before I again found cause to return to France; this time, on several occasions, to Albi – birthplace of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, home to the tallest brick cathedral in the world, appellation of a wide array of un-exported wines, and the city that introduced me to Cassoulet (which, given 2 or 3 days of preparation and someone willing to bring be sausages from Toulouse, I have been known to make as well as a Southern Frenchman). Over all the years between my Paris of the 80’s and my Albi of the 21st century, I have searched for good baguettes. They were there in Paris. They were there in Albi. They were everywhere I went in France. They were NOWHERE ELSE.
Then, one day, I was wondering around Northwest Portland and I decided to stop in at a place that I had heard about for a few years but had never visited. The pastries were amazing, but I love the pastries at La Provence and at St. Honore in Lake Oswego just as well. Ken Forkish has mastered every possible French baked good. Others have too. But Ken Forkish has also mastered something that it seems almost no other Americans have mastered – PERFECT, TRADITIONAL, French breads; especially the baguette.
All of this is just my opinion but here is what I think:
Here is a photo of the top of 2 baguettes. The upper one is from a bakery I like a lot. The lower one is from Ken’s.
The 2 breads are both baked to a relatively dark brown. Ken’s has much higher contrast between the valleys of the crust and it’s peaks. This is because of the high temperature at which he bakes and the care with which he allows his loves to proof. The color difference indicates that the crust is lighter and flakier that the more evenly colored crust. In fact, Ken’s crust is the lightest, crispest crust I’ve had. Just like it is in France.
A cross-sectional view of the loaves is even more telling. Look at the height of the loaves and look, particularly, at the size and relative density of the air pockets. Ken’s baguette is on the right.
These bigger air pockets, and this greater height is, again, due to care and control. I’m honestly not sure whether it’s his long bulk fermentation times, his proofing time, the temperature, or what. If I knew, I’d make my baguettes like he does. All I know is that when you look at these cross sections you see that Ken’s crust is thinner and his center is lighter, airier, and softer. Um… Just like it is in… you guessed it… FRANCE.
What you can’t tell from these photos, even if you believe me when I say that they indicate crisp crusts and soft centers is this. Because this bread is probably bulk fermented for a longer period of time that most other bakers, it has a richer, more complex flavor. This is where being a wine snob comes in handy. You can taste the complexity. Now, I’m sure that Ken has little tricks he plays with his levains. But, I know (from reading his book not because I know how to bake), that complexity come from the time it takes for a full bulk fermentation. If you don’t believe me, visit the bakery and try for yourself.
Now, here’s the big question of the day. What the heck is so important about finding the perfect baguette, anyway? Well, easy. Crappy bread is cheap. Good bread is expensive. If I’m going to spend $3.00 for a baguette, I want a great one. That’s it. Nothing more. I don’t expect a lot from an inexpensive wine; though I find many of them quite acceptable. But, when I spend good money on a Bordeaux, or a California Cab, or a Oregon Pinot Noir, I want my money’s worth. This may sound like I’m cheap and it may sound like I’m snooty. Maybe there is some of both in me. But here is how I feel.
Good food is an aesthetic experience as much as a well-played string quartet or a great painting. Either it edifies you, or it doesn’t. In my case, much of my enjoyment in life comes from a great cigar, a great bottle of wine, a great string quartet, a great Rothko exhibit, a great Opera, a great sculpture, a great film; in short from sensory mindfulness. Mindful eating is an equally enjoyable experience.
So why a baguette? That too is easy. If a great steak is like a Beethoven Symphony and a great cassoulet can be as epic as Wagner’s “Ring”, then a perfect, simple baguette with an underlying hidden complexity is a Bach cello suite. Sometimes I’m up for an epic but almost nothing is more enjoyable to me, after a long day at work, than a single malt scotch and a Bach cello suite. In that context, I’ll savor a Ken’s Artisan baguette, any day.
Bravissimo Ken Forkish!