The No. 4 baguette has just caused someone to exclaim, “Oh my God!” It’s the kind of shocked cry you hear when people stumble upon dead bodies, not bite into a slice of bread. The No. 4 baguette/corpse, however, has only begun to horrify the critics sitting around the conference room table at the Washington City Paper. One scoffs at the loaf’s mushy, pasty consistency. Another compares it to sandwich bread. Finally, Mark Furstenberg, the man practically synonymous with artisan bread in D.C., shovels the final scoop of dirt on this cadaver of a loaf.
“That is just a poorly made bread,” he says.
Furstenberg is here to participate in our debut baguette competition. Like the others around the table, he doesn’t take his bread lightly. In fact, you could say Furstenberg is rather dogmatic on the subject. The founder of both Marvelous Market and Breadline has so many exacting standards on the art of baguette-making—you might call them biases—that I couldn’t begin to catalog them all in a single column. But he’s not alone. Fellow judge Eric Ziebold, chef at CityZen, comes right out and says he typically doesn’t like petit baguettes since their crusts can dominate their crumb (otherwise known as the interior of the loaf).
It’s a tough audience, and Ziebold and Furstenberg are just two of the four assembled judges, who also include cookbook author Joan Nathan and City Paper Assistant Managing Editor Jule Banville, a home baker. Together, they’re slicing, smelling, and biting into loaves made by Le Pain Quotidien, Whole Foods, Firehook, Marvelous Market, Uptown Bakers, Panorama Baking, Breadline, and La Brea Bakery by way of Harris Teeter’s in Adams Morgan. But they’re also sampling two loaves smuggled into the competition by my friend, Samuel Fromartz, an amateur baker and writer who recently spent a week in Paris studying at Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel for the start-up magazine Afar.
First, about the baguettes: In an attempt to follow the Parisian competition model, I initially asked bakeries to send loaves to the paper. A few, like Breadline and Le Pain, couldn’t handle such a request, which meant that I had to abandon the plan and instead buy breads off the rack from most of the competitors. Fromartz helped in this task. We both tried to buy the freshest loaves we could find.
But two bakeries, Uptown and Panorama, specifically provided baguettes for the contest. Loic Feillet, the baker and owner of Panorama in Alexandria, personally brought his to the paper and, at my request, even offered his thoughts on the competing baguettes, as did Fromartz. Their opinions were not included in the voting.
Several well-known bakeries ultimately didn’t compete, either because they couldn’t send us loaves (such as Atwater’s in Baltimore, which makes a terrific baguette) or because their bread didn’t make the cut in the first place (Cenan’s in Vienna, a poor performer in my estimation). This mishmash of baguettes—some fresh, some hours old; some baked in commercial ovens, some baked at home; some baked for competition, some not—was enough to make Furstenberg’s head explode.
“We combined a…home baked [baguette] and very fresh bread with breads that had been baked 12 hours earlier,” Furstenberg e-mails me several days after the competition. “I am uneasy.”
Furstenberg would be uneasy numerous times during the contest. First, he isn’t thrilled with the judging criteria developed by Steven Kaplan in his 2006 book, Good Bread Is Back. (Kaplan, I should note, is considered the foremost historian on French bread.) Furstenberg wants more points in each of the six critical categories—appearance, crust, crumb, mouthfeel, odors and aromas, and tastes and flavors. “I can’t use this system,” Furstenberg says as we’re about to start. Ziebold quickly says what’s on my mind: “You have to!”
The former Breadline owner would soon turn to a new target: the baguettes, which are identified only with a numbered flag stuck into each loaf. Furstenberg can’t even summon words for No. 3; he just shakes his head in distaste. The No. 6 loaf earns this rebuke from Furstenberg: “These were obviously made very quickly.” No. 9, this: “I don’t like it.” No. 10: “It’s an inconsistent baguette. Some of it’s good; some of it’s not.” No. 12: “For me, this is much too sour.”
Furstenberg, of course, isn’t the only one casting aspersions. Ziebold lays into No. 8 with this: “It looks really good. I was surprised. It did not taste good.” Nathan cannot abide by No. 9: “I don’t like the way it mushes in your mouth.” And Banville makes a disgusted face after sampling No. 3 and declares it “very doughy.”
From this random sample of comments, it would be easy to conclude that the naysayers are correct about D.C.: It blows as a bread town. But the panel found a number of baguettes to brag on, particularly No. 7. “This is good,” Furstenberg notes. “This is the best bread we’ve eaten.” The others around the table agree. They also like No. 10 and No. 12. Nathan, in fact, gives both No. 7 and No. 10 perfect scores.
The only problem is, the public can’t buy either No. 7 or No. 10. They’re petit baguettes made by Fromartz, both riffs on a traditional French loaf with small hits of sourdough starter (though No. 10 also includes minor amounts of whole-wheat flour for flavor). Furstenberg is impressed—“You should be proud,” he tells Fromartz—particularly given the pros and cons of home bread-making. “He’s got an advantage,” Furstenberg says of Fromartz, “and he’s got a disadvantage.”
The disadvantage is obvious: Fromartz doesn’t have commercial baking equipment in his home, Furstenberg says, nor does he have the ability to maintain consistent temperatures or humidity. And the advantages? “While making a baguette or three,” Furstenberg says, “he can be kind to each one.”
The kindness that Fromartz showers on his baguettes is reflected in the final scores: His No. 10 tallies 66.5 points out of a possible 80; No. 7 racks up 63.25 points. The closest commercial baguette, No. 12 from Breadline, lags well behind with 52 points. Four loaves turn in middling-to-above-average performances: Le Pain Quotidien (43 points), Marvelous Market’s Parisian (42.5), Whole Foods’ artisan (42), and Uptown (41). Furstenberg suspects the Uptown baguette is a ringer. “They picked it out for you,” he says of the typically lousy loaf. “They made it for you.”
The poorest performers are three household names: Marvelous Market’s rustic (20), Harris Teeter’s La Brea baguette (17.5), and Firehook (8). Two judges, Nathan and Furstenberg, actually withhold any love from Firehook, the “No. 4” baguette referenced above; they both give it a zero. Panorama’s entry earns only 24 points, forcing Feillet to make an awkward confession: He dumbs down his baguettes for the local market.
A couple of days after the competition, I chat with Furstenberg, who takes the opportunity to wonder aloud what’s the point in picking a home baker as champion. Few, if any, he thinks, will log the necessary hours and suffer the required heartaches to become an amateur baker on Fromartz’s level. (Fromartz, who’s been baking for a decade now, practically proves Furstenberg’s point when he e-mails me later and suggests that his championship baguettes weren’t “my best…I’m not sure what’s going on. Need to figure it out.”)
This, however, is where I take my stand against the ever-intimidating master baker. I tell Furstenberg—rather grandly, I might add—that D.C.’s bread culture could use new blood. Perhaps some young souls will read this and want to become the next Mark Furstenberg. They could start with Fromartz’s recipe (see sidebar). They’ll just need to add one final step: Repeat all previous steps for years, until perfect.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com.