Bread: The Stuff of Life

March 1, 2010

Jamila Johnson, editor

Bread is a metaphor for life.  Its position in society, literature and history is secure:  lauded by poets, stolen by Valjean, served in both castles and dungeons, and proved calamitous to suggest cake when the masses clamored for bread.

The making of bread is an art.  One of those credited for the current appreciation of article bread (in its simplest definition: not mass produced) is Lionel Poilane, French Boulanger.  Poilane was the most famous bread maker in the world before his untimely death at 57 in 2002.  His commitment to the crafting of bread in the Latin Quarter of Paris sealed his fame after succeeding his father in the business in 1970.  (His brother, Max, is a renowned baker in his own right.)  He believed each loaf should be created from start to finish by a single baker.  His most famous bread is a round, two-kilo (that means 4.4 pounds), sourdough, a country bread called miche of pain Poilane.

The bread, as described by Peter Reinhart in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, is “naturally leavened by a wild-yeast starter passed from batch to batch, creating a distinctively sour, but not too sour, chewy, crusty bread designed to last a family for close to a week, the flavors changing each day as the bread tempers…Poilane insists that the peak flavor comes forth on the third day.”

The Poilane bakery in Bievres (on the outskirts of Paris, not far from Versailles) produces close to 15,000 loaves a day, baked in 24 wood-burning ovens. The bread is shipped around the world.

The definition of artisan bread varies and includes some, if not all, of the following characteristics: hand-crafted, baked on the premises, a “mother” dough that must be fed, hand-shaped and  baked on a stone hearth.  Bread dough is unpredictable; it requires frequent attention and adaptation to obtain a consistent result.  Artisan bread is the result of combining art and science in bread making.

The office bread tasters scattered to the four corners of Seattle in search of the best local artisan bread – the bread we could not live without.  At times, we were unable to maintain purity and succumbed to the lure of patisseries during our search of boulangeries and bakeries.  We trust you will pardon our transgression.  Following are reviews in each reviewer’s own words.

Metropolitan Market (several Seattle-area locations), receives shipments of Poilane miche every Wednesday.  In search for taste of the renowned bread, a foray to the Sand Point store coincided with the freshly received loaves being quartered and wrapped for sale.  A quarter loaf of Poilane was to be had for $6.99.

An impromptu tasting of bread fresh from Paris was held in the office at 3 o’clock that same afternoon.  Opportunistically, and in what we rationalized as the French way, a bottle of red wine – alas not high-quality French – accompanied the bread party.  The only ingredients listed on the package were whole-wheat flour and water.  A later search added raising agent and sea salt to the contents.

The bread was unique, flavorful and substantial, described by one taster as “a rustic sourdough bread with a slight rye tanginess; not a wimpy white flour bread at all.”  It had depth and substance – it simply tasted great.  We were unable to validate the claim that it tastes best on the third day as it was gone on the first.  The recipe for the miche is on page 242 of Reinhart’s book, should you be so inclined and challenged.

Bakery Nouveau–  Every time I go to Bakery Nouveau, in West Seattle at the Alaskan Junction, I silently scold all of the people from outside of West Seattle who are creating such a long line.  But how can I blame them?  When you’re talking about the staff of life, no one in Washington does a better job than the folks at William Leaman’s bakery at creating a baguette – hard on the outside, yielding a satisfying hollow echo when thumped, and chewy inside.  Warm.

Evidence of why Leaman won the Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking) is on heart-stopping display with the croissants – golden yellow, gently browned on the outside with layer upon layer of delicacy that makes you realize that maybe it is permissible to use “sensuous” and “bread” in the same sentence.  Finally, a visit to Bakery Nouveau is incomplete without partaking of that sweetest of breads – a twice-baked almond croissant, with its layers of buttery pastry that melt in your mouth, marzipan spread thinly inside, sliced almonds sprinkled over it all and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

In the end, those long lines are a small inconvenience that keeps the ovens humming all day long so you can buy warm, fresh bread whenever you walk in the door.

Columbia City Bakery- Our restaurateur sources identify Columbia City Bakery as a true artisan bakery.  Our unscientific survey – conducted by asking servers at various restaurants which bakery supplied bread – leads us to conclude that this bakery is at the top of the list for many Seattle establishments.

One restaurant receives several deliveries a day.  Mussels served in another were topped with the bakery’s cubed potato bread, lightly toasted, facilitating a single fork spearing bread and mussels, and dipped in broth allowing a combination of tastes and textures in one bite.  A reliable source credits Columbia City’s brioche as the best bread for French toast – it has been known to be the base of exquisite bread pudding as well.

Le Panier – Very French Bakery– ooh la la!  The intoxicating smell of fresh baking bread and pastries beckons from blocks away.

Le Panier has been a market staple since 1983 and nothing complements a “market meal” of fresh crab and vegetables like pan d’epi (bread in the shape of a wheat stalk).  The crust is golden brown and crunchy.  The inside is perfectly airy.

On the dessert side, the palmier is the best in the city – sweet, flaky and just slightly chewy in the center, and it will decorate your shirt with a layer of crumbs.  Stepping out of the bakery into Pike Place Market is like returning to Seattle from a mini vacation.  Other bread suggestions to bring you back from your brief Parisian respite are the campagne and the complete – heartier and denser than Le Panier’s classic French breads, but just as delicious.

Tall Grass Bakery– all breads are baked on site in the small and great-smelling space off 24th Avenue in Ballard.  Loaves are displayed on shelves and large pretzels hang from hooks.

It was Super Bowl Sunday and the sociable assistant suggested hominy bread – eschewing the basic, but appealing, baguette and other more traditional loaves – to accompany homemade chili.  A great choice, similar in concept to cornbread, but much more refined with some texture and slightly sweet.  The granola was hard to pass up.

Also try:

Le Fournil, 3230 Eastlake Ave. East, Seattle; 206-328-6523

Macrina Bakery, 2408 First Ave., Seattle; 206-448-4032 (reviewed in the November 2009 article on desserts).

Café Besalu, 5909 24th Ave., NW, Seattle; 206-789-1463; no website (located next to Tall Grass, deserves mention for its excellent French-style pastries).

Contact Jamila Johnson with comments or for more information at

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the King County Bar Bulletin. Reprinted with permission of the King County Bar Association.

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