Big-Time Bread Guy Waxes Rhapsodic on Baguettes

A couple of weeks ago Steven L. Kaplan, a Cornell University professor of European history and the author of a pile of well-regarded books on the history and appreciation of French bread, breezed into town to rate New York's best baguettes, the surprising results of which you can find here.

After the professor had thoroughly sniffed, squeezed, sawed, and sampled his way through a baker's dozen of the city's best, we asked him how a nice boy from Brooklyn became the world's leading authority on French bread, why the baguette, and the proper way to eat one.

Where and when did you taste your first baguette, and how was it?

The first time I tasted a bread that jolted and then moved me — and became inscribed in my Proustian cortex — was in 1962, a few hours after I landed in Paris for the first time. I wandered hungrily and wholly accidentally into the shop of a baker not yet celebrated (but soon to become the best-known baker of the century) — Pierre Poilâne on the rue du Cherche Midi. It enchanted me: I had never tasted anything like it. It possessed a rich sensuality, a moist and engaging feel, a blend of gently unfolding tastes: butter, then butterscotch, then almonds. Its deep crustiness cast into relief and complemented the evolving bouquet of the fleshy crumb. On some level, this fortuitous bread encounter probably changed my life, without my knowing it for some time.

Why focus on the baguette instead of all the other types of French bread?

It is the most common bread, the bread baked by every baker in France, the first test of baking virtuosity. Mastery of the baguette is a genuine precondition to creativity in other genres.

Is the artisanal-bread movement stronger here or in France?

It is infinitely stronger in France, where 32,500 bakers still operate independently. The bakery in France is a center of sociability and exchange as well as a commercial and manufacturing venue. Bakers are deeply appreciated; next to firemen, they garner the most praise in public-opinion polls asking people about those they esteem most.

What's your favorite way to eat a baguette?

If the baguette is engaging in appearance, if it emits a bewitching bouquet of aromas, if it's crusty and sings to me under my caress, if I suspect that it will be a sumptuous treat, then I will eat it on the way home from the bakery. Such a baguette needs no accompaniment — neither butter nor cheese nor jam. It is gustatively self-sufficient. It can accompany virtually all dishes, though I prefer a rye-wheat mix for shellfish and a country loaf or a buckwheat tourte for game.

Are you a crust or a crumb person?

Aha! Crucial aesthetic, existential, even ontological question. A baguette that is not crusty is a contradiction in terms: crustiness is a sine qua non. But I yearn for a symbiotic relationship between crust and crumb. I covet the voluptuousness of a fleshy crumb, laden with aromas, tightly embraced by a virile, caramelized crust, together dancing a tango of flavor.

— Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld