Man does not live by bread alone. On second thought, strike that. Steven Laurence Kaplan ’63 just might.
Kaplan is an expert on French bread, a subject about which he has written nine books. A professor emeritus at Cornell University specializing in French social history, he lives in Paris but has appeared everywhere from New York magazine to Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show. To call bread his passion would be an understatement. Kaplan speaks of the lowly boule the way oenophiles speak of a Château Lafite Rothschild, as a lover speaks of his beloved.
I aspire to feel what he feels, so we agreed to meet early one morning last fall at one of his favorite boulangeries, named for its owner, Dominique Saibron, in the 14th arrondissement, just across from the Alesia Metro stop. If Parisian bakers can be celebrities, Saibron surely qualifies; in various competitions, he has been honored as baker of the third-best baguette and fourth-best croissant in the city, and he has opened locations in Tokyo and Osaka.
In the predawn darkness, Saibron’s shop is warm and inviting, the shelves piled high, the smells intoxicating. Kaplan arrives in a hurry, on his way to a local TV station to promote his latest book, published in French, in which he analyzes the political economy of bread during the reign of Louis XV. Still, he always has time for a quick tasting lesson, based on his own six-point rubric. Kaplan selects a simple baguette, perhaps the most representative of all French breads (10 billion are sold annually in France alone). And to dispel any doubts that he is serious about his work, he reaches into his coat pocket and produces an 8-inch bread knife, folded over like a switchblade. He has had more than one confiscated by airport security.
Bread is both universal and elemental, the product of earth (wheat), air (fermentation and kneading), water, and fire. “Dough is a living substance,” Kaplan explains, his accent betraying his Brooklyn roots. “Every day the baker creates life, and when you create life, it’s recalcitrant, it doesn’t always follow the same rules.” Time, temperature, humidity, even the baker’s mood will produce something that is slightly different. A loaf baked at 6 a.m. won’t taste exactly the same as one baked at noon.
Spend even a little time with Kaplan and illusions are shattered — such as that bread is best fresh out of the oven. “You do not want to eat warm bread,” he warns. “When you go into a restaurant and they give you warm bread, it’s because it’s awful or it’s stale. Heating bread doesn’t make it better, it simply makes it impossible for you to verify if it’s any good at all.”
With that admonition, Kaplan picks up the baguette in front of us, which fortunately has cooled to room temperature. On his first grading point — appearance — he gives high marks. There are the traditional six scars across the top, curled ends indicating that it was made by hand. “This is elegant, seductive, appetizing. It makes me want to go further,” he says, turning the baguette over in his hands. “I am seduced by this bread based on its appearance.”
So am I. Kaplan’s enthusiasm for the baguette is contagious. Its crust is the color of autumn leaves. But a frown crosses his face.
He spots a telltale white line along the sides, thin as a pencil mark, where the crust did not fully brown. When the assistant baker comes over to greet him, Kaplan shakes his head. To a bread connoisseur it means that the loaves were laid close together on the baking pan, so they touched in the oven. The French term for this is baiser — the loaves were “kissing” — but Kaplan characterizes their relations using a coarser Anglo-Saxon word. The baker acknowledges this deficiency with a Gallic shrug.
Also, Kaplan says as he turns back to me, this baguette doesn’t sound right. Hear that? When he whacks it on the table, it doesn’t produce the right thump. It’s another mark of hurry and commodification, a sign that too many loaves were crammed into the oven to boost production and then weren’t baked long enough, perhaps only 19 minutes instead of the necessary 21. From such frayed threads, he contends, the entire fabric of national gastronomy can unravel.
Now I can’t un-see that white line, which looks almost like the underbelly of a fish, but Kaplan has moved on to his second grading point: the crumb, which refers to the entire interior of the loaf. He makes a cut and inspects the baguette like a surgeon. The crumb does not adhere well to the crust because the crust is insufficiently caramelized — he’s clearly not going to let this go — but the crumb itself is “lovely,” the right pearl-gray color. Swiss cheese-like gaps made by escaping air bubbles, called alvéolages, are present in a mix of shapes and sizes. “These holes have a savage pattern that makes no sense at all,” he pronounces. “This is just what I want to see.”
Next, aroma. Kaplan takes a slice and buries his nose in it, almost rubs it across his face. There are more than 200 volatile molecules in bread, he explains; chemically, it is more complex than wine or cheese. Kaplan picks up notes of hazelnut, dried apricot, and a little bit of pepper. Across the table I’m getting undertones of ... I don’t know, wheat?
Enchanting as it seems, the aroma is not exceptional. “It’s not catastrophic,” he pronounces, “but it’s not the mesmerizing, enchanting aroma I expect.” Though I have not yet had breakfast, I am beginning to wonder if I should try a croissant instead.
Kaplan’s fourth grading point is what he calls mâche — not taste but “mouth feel.” Kaplan pops a piece and chews it, searching for the right words to describe the sensory experience of having a chunk of bread in his mouth. He frowns again. “It’s a bit recalcitrant,” he concludes, “and that’s because I don’t have enough crust to lubricate the combination of crumb and crust. But it’s agreeable enough.”
And then, for the same reason wine tasters don’t swallow the wines they sample, Kaplan nonchalantly — oh my God, I can’t believe he’s doing this — spits the half-masticated chunk into a bag.
What makes someone become an expert on bread? Perhaps like Proust’s madeleines, it is the aroma that pulls Kaplan back into memory.
He began his career studying Southern history under Eric Goldman at Princeton and C. Vann Woodward at Yale, where he earned his doctorate. Growing up, bread was just something to put around tuna fish or peanut butter. On his first morning in Paris as a Fulbright scholar in 1962, he had an epiphany.
Seeking lunch, Kaplan walked into Lionel Poilâne’s boulangerie near the Church of Saint-Sulpice and was overwhelmed. More than half a century later, he recalls that he ordered a bâtard, a torpedo-shaped loaf. “I can still feel it and taste it,” he says — still hear it, too, recalling its “melodic, crusty sound.” He carried the bâtard, a chunk of goat cheese, and a small bottle of wine to enjoy in the Luxembourg Gardens, but never got to the cheese. The bread was “so formidably defamiliarizing that I said to myself, ‘What is this?’ ”
For the remainder of his time in France, Kaplan kept a bread journal and visited five or six boulangeries a week, driven, he says, “by a hedonistic and cultural lust.” Returning to Yale, he informed Woodward that he was switching to French history. Though he was only beginning to appreciate it, the study of bread was his entrance to a range of other subjects: agriculture, technology, economics, religion, sociology, politics, even neuroscience. In his 1996 book, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700–1775, he traced the many roles bread, and the want of it, played in contributing to the French Revolution. He became a pioneer in the emerging field of culinary scholarship.
Though Kaplan could hardly have anticipated it, the man and the moment met in another way. French baguettes, at least named as such, originated shortly after World War I, the product of better ovens and the wider availability of white flour. But World War II destroyed much French agriculture and left the country unable to afford culinary luxuries. When the postwar economy improved, the national diet diversified and globalized. People ate more meat, while bakers cut corners on a less discerning public, using cheaper flour and commercial yeast. Their products may have been beautiful to look at, but they were “insipid” to eat. Bread, that staple of French cuisine and culture, seemed doomed to a Pepperidge Farm-like uniformity.
Somewhat like craft brewing, artisanal baking made a comeback in the 1970s and ’80s. Saibron, Poilâne, and other bakers led the resurgence, forswearing the use of additives, reintroducing sourdough fermentation, and encouraging the use of better flour. Kaplan, who had already befriended many of these retro artisans, celebrated their efforts in his 2006 book, Good Bread Is Back, and gave them intellectual underpinning and historical context. In recognition, the French government has twice made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
In short, French baking was saved, but victory is never permanent. The health-conscious French eat less bread than they used to, and the number of boulangeries has shrunk from 54,000 in the 1950s to about 30,000 today. A few years ago, the bakers’ lobby tried to reverse this trend by launching an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Coucou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hey there, did you pick up the bread?”) But beyond a small tier of artisans, commercialization and globalization roll on. “The old crap is still out there,” Kaplan cautions.
If Kaplan’s passion for French bread has not diminished, the same cannot be said for his consumption. On a typical day, he might eat only a quarter of a baguette, but not because he is shunning carbs. No, the reason is more spiritual. “I have found,” he says, “that the more I have learned to discern and savor what goes into my nose and mouth, the more quickly I become sated with dense pleasure relatively rapidly.”
His desire to write about bread has not produced an equal desire to make it. Although he sometimes bakes at home — and nearly missed his son’s birth because he was hanging out with master baker Pierre Poilâne (Lionel’s father) — Kaplan is humbled by how hard it is to do well.
“I’d like you to know,” he confides, “that I am a mediocre baker.”
On this particular morning, unfortunately, so is Dominique Saibron.
Returning to the baguette before us, Kaplan moves to the last item on his rubric, the one a novice might think matters most: taste — or as the French put it, saveur. He cuts a fresh slice, chews, and ponders. “There’s a kind of lusty taste to it, fairly intense,” he concludes. “It’s pleasant, but somewhat monolithic rather than multiple. A little note of citrus toward the end that is agreeable.”
When he was ranking the city’s top boulangeries, Kaplan graded on a 20-point scale, which mimics the grading scale in French secondary schools. Only about 10 boulangeries in Paris (out of perhaps 1,200) earned a grade of 16 or higher, which Kaplan analogizes to three Michelin stars. Twelve points was his cutoff, the equivalent of a single star. He gives this baguette a grade of 12.5.
“It makes the cut,” he concludes, “but it is not the sharply distinct bread that I want to associate with.”
With that, Kaplan grabs an organic country loaf to take home and heads for his TV interview, leaving me to devour the rest of our baguette, insufficiently caramelized crust or not. The sun has come up, the streets of Paris are alive, and the boulangerie is filling with commuters seeking a bit of breakfast on their way to work.
The bread connoisseur is philosophical about our experience. This is not Panera. Exceptional baguettes can’t be churned out on an assembly line. Bakers create life, remember, and as with any artist, even with God himself, sometimes that creation is flawed.
If he ran into his old friend Saibron, Kaplan insists, he’d say, “Dominique, this was not your best day.”
Let Us Eat Bread!
These are Steven Kaplan ’63’s favorite bakers in and around Paris — with his explanations of what makes them so good.
FRANCK DEBIEU 6 rue du Dr Berger in the southern suburb of Sceaux Astonishing virtuoso: Try the tourte or the barely mixed St-Père, a voluptuously aromatic rustic loaf that breathes forth lime blossoms and black cherry.
FRÉDÉRIC PICHARD 88 rue Cambronne, 75015 Creative technician, master of complex fermentation, wood-burning oven, spellbinding baguette de tradition that evokes cooked pumpkin and dried Corinthian raisins.
DOMINIQUE SAIBRON 77 avenue du Général Leclerc, 75014 Eclectic rigorist, exceptional on stone-ground organic country loaves with a dried apricot and almond inflection, and a savory baguette with a slight citrus patina.
CHRISTOPHE VASSEUR 34 rue Yves Toudic, 75010 Celebrated for an organic rectangular loaf (pain des amis) that emits three distinct aromatic layers, with a touch of leather, spice, and smoky vanilla.
RAOUL MAEDER 158 boulevard Berthier, 75017 Exquisite, crusty baguettes exuding a butter and hazelnut flavor; and Alsatian kugelhopfs, lactic and fruity.
JEAN-PAUL MATHON 86, avenue Gambetta, 75020 Highly inventive, bucolic loaves of mixed grains, and an ebony-colored baguette derived from high-extraction flour and larded with a robust flavor of cooked zucchini and lentil.
ANIS BOUABSA 32 rue Tristan Tzara, 75018 Splendid baguette and wide array of richly flavored country loaves.
ARNAUD DELMONTEL 39, rue des Martyrs, 75009 Creamy and crusty baguette, and a new organic stone-ground line that features loaves irrigated by a nutty germ and heightened with a note of spicy fruit.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.