Bread is the staff of life, the staple of our western diet since the end of the hunter-gatherer era.
It’s an ingrained habit – more notable for its absence than its presence. Toast for Breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, rolls with dinner, and many variations for a late night snack. Yet the food world is divided about bread. One camp fears the harmful effects of gluten, the wheat protein that allows bread to rise; the other rejoices over the increasing availability of a broad range of flavorful and crusty artisanal breads based on the old-world model.
For those who are intolerant of gluten and cannot enjoy the rise of handmade bread, my empathy. I lived in a family with that problem years before it was widely recognized. Diagnosis was difficult and life after even more so. Today there is an entire universe of gluten free options that almost make up for the loss of old-fashioned bread.
For those who seek out the best breads from local and artisanal bakers – it’s a golden age. Beginning 30 or more years ago a few curious pioneers rebelled against mass-produced bread with its engineered nutrition and manufactured texture. They looked to Europe and in particular France and Italy for a centuries-old bread making tradition of fresh, wholesome, full flavored bread and respect for the bakers art. They came back with recipes, techniques and unique flours to practice what had been learned. Some even built massive wood-fired brick ovens like you see in medieval villages.
Dan Leader was one of these pioneers. He left the big city in 1983 and founded Bread Alone in the Hudson Valley to satisfy his craving for better bread. His hand-crafted loaves were made with whole grains and organic flours. In 1985 he brought master craftsman Andre LeFort from Paris to build a traditional wood-fired oven from scratch – the first in the region. Bread Alone now thrives with a busy bakery, three cafes and regional wholesale distribution.
We’re lucky to have several top notch bread bakers in our back yard. In Norwalk Wave Hill Breads started baking their award winning country loaf in 2005. Trained in Vermont by a master French baker, the Wave Hill bakers carry on the old-world artisan tradition with a classic crusty loaf. From that beginning, a ciabatta with olives and roasted peppers , whole grain, multi grain, caramelized garlic loaf, baguette, focaccia, ciabatta rounds and French country boules have been added to their lineup The breads are available at local farmers’ markets, selected stores and caring restaurants. It’s definitely worth the effort to get some.
The SoNo Baking Company offers a baker’s dozen of fresh-baked breads. Drawing on his family tradition and rigorous training at the Culinary Institute of America, baker John Barencelli has put together a selection of authentic and delicious breads. At their bakery café at 101 Water Street in South Norwalk you can watch the bakers in the open kitchen, enjoy coffee and a treat, and soak up the wonderful aroma of baking bread. If you go (and you should), be ready for temptation from the beautiful pastries and desserts in addition to the breads.
Stew Leonard’s has the biggest and best known bakery in town. Who doesn’t like to stand and watch the bakers in action, surrounded by stacks of breads, muffins, croissants and other enticements? It’s hard to resist a country loaf, the famous croissants or a whole wheat boule all baked right here.
There are several Panera bakery locations in the area. They are mostly known for an extensive breakfast and lunch menu based on their own breads. But I like to pop in for a loaf or two to take home. The honey whole wheat loaf is a particular favorite for a lunchtime sandwich.
Fresh-baked artisanal bread, by definition, doesn’t last very long, mostly because it’s eaten right away, but also because it is made with all natural ingredients, without preservatives. The good news is bread freezes well. Wrap it tightly and get it in the freezer right away. Any leftover slices make excellent French toast. Since we don’t shop daily like the Europeans, it’s a good idea to get several loaves: one for now and more to freeze for later.
Let me know if you have a rising interest in good bread or bake your own.
Wave Hill Breads
30 High Street, Norwalk, CT
SoNo Baking Company
101 Water St, Norwalk, CT
160 Post Road, Westport, CT
100 Westport Ave., Norwalk,CT
Multiple Locations – Norwalk, Westport, Darien