skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

One Man's Quest For Good Bread Turns Into An Adventure In Baking Around The World

September 10, 2014 1:07 p.m.

One Man's Quest For Good Bread Turns Into An Adventure In Baking Around The World

GUEST:

Samuel Fromartz is a journalist turned award-winning baker and author. His memoir is called "In Search of the Perfect Loaf — A Home Baker's Odyssey." He's also editor and chief of the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Related Story: One Man's Quest For Good Bread Turns Into An Adventure In Baking Around The World

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

TOM FUDGE: You're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS, I am Tom Fudge. There is a reason our daily bread is mentioned in the Lord's prayer. Bread has long been a metaphor for food, even today, bread provides 20% of the calories consumed by community. That, by the way, is one fact you will learn by reading the book in search of the perfect loaf. It is written by Samuel Fromartz, and it approaches the subject of bread in a way culinary, historical, and botanical. He is in San Diego today for a reading and a presentation of his book, and he joins me now in studio. Sam, thank you very much for coming in. Sam, bread is a metaphor for food, provides 20% of the calories in the world, what about protein?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It is the number one source of protein in the world. People do not realize that, in our entry, where many people are trying to avoid gluten protein. But for the world, it is the number one source.

TOM FUDGE: So worldwide, bread provides more protein than meat?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: Correct.

TOM FUDGE: Why did you want to write about bread?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It happened on a circuitous route. I started as a homemaker, and I was baking because I simply wanted to have a good loaf, which I cannot find near my home in Washington DC. I decided to bake myself, because I was an avid cook, more than fifteen years ago. I quickly found out, I'm a journalist, and as you know, we have times of stress. I found that making do, slipping it on the counter was a real way of getting stress out. It became second nature for me, I continued the process.

TOM FUDGE: What is bread?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It is sustenance, taste, and a great thing to mop up spaghetti sauce.

TOM FUDGE: What is it made out of?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: The bed I make is out of wheat flour, salt, water, yeast, and sourdough starter. Four ingredients, although in modern bread, commercial breads, there are many more additives in the loaf.

TOM FUDGE: I think you said we did not become the primary maker of bread until a couple of hundred years ago.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: Yes, there was a much wider variety of grains grown. People a barley, spelt, oats, and they ate non-wheat grains such as chickpeas and things like that that were ground up into flour. The reason all of these crops were ground, it's because farmers were always hedging their bets. If wheat would fail, they would have barley. If barley failed, they would have oats. You are constantly hedging, and as a result, they had a much more varied diet then you have today. Plus, the grains they were for the most part, because they did not want to waste the calories in the brand that we now discard when we make white flour. It is about 12% to 16% of the kernel itself, and it has calories that can sustain you. If you were short of food, you would want to eat that.

TOM FUDGE: I heard that bread originally came from ancient Babylonia, is that correct?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: Wheat goes back about 20,000 years, and I looked at the archaeological evidence, which I described in my book. The first farmers were originally nomads, hunters and gatherers. One of the things they started gathering was the ancient variety of wheat seeds. The conjecture is that they probably used them to make beer at first, and eventually to make bread.

TOM FUDGE: So they were hunter gatherers, I would've thought the people who first people to plant wheat, that might have came with the agricultural revolution, when we stopped being hunters and gatherers.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: They first gathered wild grain on the ground. Then, they probably saved or stored it somewhere and it began growing, so they realize they could grow it where they were living. The process of actually domesticating wheat and taking it from the wild plant to the clear domesticated version took about a millennium, about 1000 years according to archaeological evidence.

TOM FUDGE: I am partial to the subject because my mother's people are wheat farmers in Kansas. They were German-speaking Mennonites who brought Turkey red wheat from where they formerly lived in the Ukraine. In fact, this is a store you talk about in your book. What way do you find this story remarkable?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It was amazing, I had never been to the heartland of Kansas. I landed in Denver, and usually when I go to Denver I tried to the mountains. In this case, I drove east, and it became fields of Amber grain, flat and rolling. I was visiting the heartland mill in Kansas, and the owner of the mill, his grandparents came from Ukraine. I went to this, my grandparents immigrated from Ukraine as well. The Mennonites are fleeing religious persecution, and my Jewish grandparents were also fleeing religious persecution. We immediately establish rapport based on our lineage, and he showed me around the mill and also the wheat fields of Kansas.

TOM FUDGE: Why where the grains so successful in the United States?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It is interesting, the earliest farmer of the plains brought wheat from the east. That was a softer wheat that did not do well in the arid plains states. The Mennonites came and investigated different areas to settle, and they chose Kansas. They brought wheat seed with them, and it was a very diverse population of wheat. Ukraine actually pretty much matches Kansas in the climate and soil type. The wheat seed did really well, and eventually the seeds they brought made the breadbasket what it is today. The original turkey red wheat varieties were taken into modern wheat varieties. They exist probably in every loaf of red you eat today. You can get the original turkey red seats now, but they are grown on a very small scale.

TOM FUDGE: There are many popular views of red, and it gets political sometimes. There seems to be an anti-bread movement with people who are down on carbs, and feel gluten is bad for you even if you do not have celiac disease. Is that something that you explore in your book?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: I did, a couple of interesting things on that. I think there is a real issue of people who have medical reasons to avoid wheat. As you mentioned, celiac disease. There is also an issue of gluten intolerance, which is much less developed in medical knowledge and research, although research is continuing, it is at an early stage at this point. There is a wider population of people avoiding gluten as a cultural phenomenon or fad. I think it is really pushed by marketing companies.

TOM FUDGE: You are from New York. Did you grow up with a certain kind of bread you really loved?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: I grew up with Jewish Rye and Russian rye, which were quite dense, as well as Italian loaves. Many of these were made by immigrant or sons of immigrants who had degrees. Most of them are gone at this point. It was kind of a sad passing, but those were the loaves that influenced me. I remembered, when I was trying to re-create the breads, in my own kitchen. I get off that path and when in more of an artisan direction.

TOM FUDGE: Do you have a favorite bread?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: I get asked that question a lot, and I would have to say no. As soon as I get a favorite bread, I start making something else and that becomes my favorite. But I do have my favorites.

TOM FUDGE: Well, give us a couple of them.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: I love a well-made baguette, but I do not eat them every day because they are white flour and I like to eat more whole grain breads. I eat sourdough made with why, whole wheat, and white flour, and I eat dense German style rye breads, all of which I explored in my book.

TOM FUDGE: The German style rye, they call it black and red.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: The interesting thing about that, it is coarsely milled whole grains that almost look like whole-grain cereal that you would make in the morning. The method of making them, you would actually make an open lighter bread. They are not terribly dense. But if you eat them, they digest so slowly that you get a slow burn, and it keeps you fool for a long time.

TOM FUDGE: You mentioned the subject of baguettes. That is kind of how you got into the reporting, right? Because you accepted an assignment to go to France and find the perfect baguette or learn how to make baguettes.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It was a terrible assignment, go to Paris to learn how to make a baguette. I have to say, I have been a longtime journalist and baker, and I avoided writing about baking. It was my relief from writing, as I mentioned. I did not want to ruin it by having it become my job. This opportunity came up in the depth of the recession to go to Paris and learn how to make the perfect baguette. I was able to locate a baker who had won the best baguette in Paris contest, which they hold annually. He welcomed me into his bakery and I began apprenticing there at 3:30 AM for about a week. I came home, translated those lessons to the home kitchen and came up with a good recipe, which was then put up against professional bakers in Washington DC by a newspaper journalist, and my baguettes won the best in DC.

TOM FUDGE: Good for you, the best baguette in DC. I never knew, when you walked in the door, the you are the winner of that contest.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: I am sorry that I did not bring a loaf, but they are best eaten within four hours.

TOM FUDGE: As a person who has done a lot of baking, what would you say is the key to being a good baker and understanding how the bread is going to behave in the oven after you make it?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: The most important thing to know about good bread is that it takes time to make. It really battles against our ideas of efficiency and fast production and all of the things that industry likes to make a profit. If you actually let dough ferment over a long period, it develops wonderful flavors, and you're not doing anything. You're just letting it slowly rise. That is what it takes to make good bread. But as we know, time is money, so the industry condenses that process to an hour versus several, or as long as a day if you refrigerate the dough and develop the flavor. Once you condense the process, you lose flavor, texture, and you end up with most of the bread that you buy today.

TOM FUDGE: I wanted to ask you a question about global warming, is that causing our grain belts to move north?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It is, there are studies that are showing that the wheat belt in the Midwest is moving north, and wheat producing centers will shift further into Canada, and this may be an issue with farmers in South India, a large wheat producer and consumer, a lot of people depend on wheat for nutrition. Those fields, especially in mid-India will shift north, and a lot of people may face food shortages in the future.

TOM FUDGE: Finally, you are still in search of the perfect loaf?

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It's a never-ending search. The perfect loaf, as a baker recently told me, does not exist. That is a good thing, because you are always trying to make something better.

TOM FUDGE: Well, you can find one of Sam's bread recipes on our website. Thank you very much.