- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Here is bread, which strengthens man’s heart, and is therefore called the staff of life.

Matthew Henry, “Commentary on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 104 (1710)

In Washington, as in most of America, bread once meant loaves of soft-crusted white and wheat bread with a spongy interior and little taste — think Wonder Bread. Except in New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and just a few other places between, crusty European-type bread was rarely available.

But that was then. Good bread, like good wine and good coffee, is all around us in Washington and the suburbs, and it’s about time.



In 1971, Vie de France started commercial production of crusty French bread and rolls in Washington, available throughout the city, but it was not until master bread maker Mark Furstenberg changed careers in 1989 and became a baker that Washington’s bread revolution began.

That’s when genuine French baguettes became available at Mr. Furstenberg’s Marvelous Market on Connecticut Avenue. Bread is affected by the water used, by temperature, climate, seasons of the year and other variables, so even Marvelous Market’s bread was not exactly a copy of the French version. It was indeed “marvelous,” however.

Marvelous Market was followed by Uptown Bakers (now available only to wholesale buyers), Firehook Bakery in Alexandria and others, as well as bakeries offering more traditionally American soft-crust breads.

Prices for some of the best breads available hereabouts vary from about $1.75 to $2.25 for a baguette, from $2.50 to $5 for 1-pound or larger loaves, depending on the size and ingredients. The more complex the loaf, the higher the price.

With few exceptions, all the bakers use untreated flours, shape the loaves by hand, leaven by natural fermentation (sometimes with different starters for different types of bread). Bakers love what they do and take the baking of bread seriously, and it shows.

• • •

Mr. Furstenberg no longer owns Marvelous Market but now makes his excellent French baguettes at the Bread Line on Pennsylvania Avenue, a block up from the White House. The Bread Line still makes the closest thing to an authentic Parisian baguette you can get in Washington — in fact, it’s better than many of the commercially made loaves available in Parisian bakeries. It’s a delicious long, slim loaf with a delicate crust and just the right proportion of dough to crust.

It doesn’t keep, though, so have it for lunch if you can. The Bread Line closes at 3:30 p.m., so you can’t pick it up on your way home from work.

The bakery also produces lovely crusty ciabatta rolls. Ciabatta is Italian for “slipper.” It’s a light white bread made with a little olive oil; the crust is crunchy, and the interior has lots of holes. It’s an excellent bread for bruschettas or toast.

All breads at the Bread Line are baked at the Pennsylvania Avenue location and are available early in the morning.

A rival for the Bread Line’s baguette is produced by Mal Krinn, a retired ophthalmologist who bakes the bread for his son’s restaurant, 2941, in Falls Church. Although most of the wonderful breads Dr. Krinn bakes are available only to diners at the restaurant, the baguettes are for sale in the restaurant’s Cafe 2941.

• • •

Another excellent baguette is produced by Bonaparte Bakery, located in the picturesque old Savage Mill complex in Savage, Md. Pierre Lefilliatre, a Norman who owned a bakery in France, started the bakery six years ago. It’s very French. All the breads are baked in a large round wood-burning brick oven.

Bonaparte’s baguette has a crunchy, slightly chewy crust and a somewhat denser interior than the Bread Line’s baguette. It keeps well throughout the day, and the flavor is delicious. The same dough is made into sandwich and dinner rolls.

If you don’t want to go as far as Savage for a loaf, Bonaparte’s bread is available at Patisserie Poupon on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (pick up some of its exceptional croissants while you’re there), at Dean & Deluca and at Wagshal’s Delicatessen and Market on Massachusetts Avenue.

Mr. Lefilliatre is proud of his resemblance to Napoleon (hence the name of the bakery), and his bakery is full of photographs, busts and other memorabilia of the emperor, including a copy of an authentic period uniform, which M. Lefilliatre dons on occasion to appear at special French functions. His bakery in Baltimore’s Fells Point (where the pastry is made) is decorated completely in Empire style.

• • •

For French baguettes with a slightly thicker crust, Best Buns in Shirlington makes a nice baguette with lots of flavor. The same bread is available as a boule (a round loaf, often baked in a basket). Best Buns makes the best raisin-pecan bread in the area. It’s a heavy, moist bread with lots of fruit and nuts; it keeps well and is delicious either as is or toasted.

“Each loaf is hand-shaped,” says head baker Carlos Fernandez.

He continues to experiment on new types of bread for Best Buns. He also makes a rich, dark raisin rye and several types of crusty dinner rolls: potato dill, honey wheat, rosemary, plain, multigrain and some excellent focaccia rolls. Challah is baked on Friday and brioche bread on Saturday.

• • •

Most area bakeries bake challah, some daily, some on Fridays and some to order. One of the best and least expensive is available at Heller’s Bakery on Mount Pleasant Street NW in Adams Morgan for $2.75. The bakery has been a Washington staple since 1928.

For the past three years, the owner has been Eric Johanson, who also bakes several Central American specialties, such as “quesadilla,” a slightly sweet light corn bread topped with sesame seeds, and “concha” rolls with colored sugar toppings.

• • •

Marvelous Market and Firehook Bakery are commercial success stories. Both bake their breads at a central location and distribute them to their numerous citywide outlets. Bakers agree that the advantage of baking “commissary style” is that a single head baker can be in charge of the entire production, the quality of the bread will be better controlled, and the loaves will be consistent. The disadvantage is that the bread will not be as fresh when it reaches the consumer. Hot bread, straight from the oven, is becoming a thing of the past.

Marvelous Market has been expanded into a multistore operation, including not only bakeries, but cafes as well. The markets also sell such items as olives, cheeses, pates and prepared delicacies.

Co-owner Michael Meyer has 10 stores in the area, the two newest ones at 18th and K streets and at Seventh and H streets NW. Marvelous Market breads (more than two dozen types) differ from the originals. The sourdough ficelle (a thinner, shorter version of the baguette) and sourdough baguettes are very good. Not as sour as San Francisco bread, they have good flavor and texture and a slightly chewy crust and keep well throughout the day.

Another excellent and unusual bread is the Marvelous Market’s sweet-potato boule, a large, pale orange round loaf, slightly sweet, with a shiny crust. Eatzi’s, the Dallas-based food and deli market on Rockville Pike in Rockville, likewise makes an excellent sourdough boule. Eatzi’s makes several dozen kinds of breads and bakes them in store.

Firehook Bakery is 10 years old. The baking originally was done at the Lee Street location in Old Town Alexandria; now it is done exclusively on Fayette Street, and deliveries go to eight outlets every morning. Like Bonaparte, Firehook bakes its bread in a beautiful circular wood-burning brick oven with a small stack of oak logs waiting to be incinerated.

Firehook bakes certain breads every day and others only on certain days. One of the best, available on Tuesdays, is Russian black bread. A small rectangular loaf, this is deliciously dense, perfect for combining with cream cheese and smoked salmon. It keeps well and is nicely chewy. Firehook recently introduced a small round loaf of chocolate cherry bread, neither too sweet nor too chocolaty, with an excellent aftertaste. Firehook’s multigrain is also a very popular bread.

• • •

For lovers of dark, dense bread, the best in the area comes from Upper Crust bakery in Silver Spring, where David Neville bakes a bread called sauerteigbrot (German for sourdough). It’s a true Northern European bread; it stays fresh for days and has a wonderful rich sour flavor. The recipe, flour and starter all came directly to Mr. Neville from Geisen, Germany.

The large round loaves are sold in quarters, by the pound, and are available at Whole Foods Markets and at Left Bank Bakery on Wisconsin Avenue.

“I never went to Paris,” Mr. Neville says, pointing to his ovens. “The French make great ovens.” Indeed, his pain de campagne, the French country bread, rivals Poilane’s country bread from Paris, the most famous bread in France.

Mr. Neville also makes a “pain de Como,” which is a lighter whole-wheat country loaf. Both of these breads, like the German sourdough, are sold in quarters by the pound.

Upper Crust makes frozen sesame semolina loaves, French baguettes and soft dinner rolls under the name of Crest Hill Bakery. These brown-and-serve items are also available at Whole Foods Markets in the freezer section.

• • •

Heidelberg Bakery in Arlington has been making half a dozen German-type breads for more than a quarter of a century with flour imported from Germany.

Kerne brot and volkorn rye are both very dense, sour breads. Farmers’ rye is a Bavarian peasant bread, an excellent dense, medium dark sourdough rye (it’s great with butter and jam or with cheese); Aachener brot is a combination of half a dozen grains and seeds with hazelnuts; krautiner bread is a moist dark bread made of wheat and rye with spices and whole grains; three-seed bread is another good, moist dark bread.

Heidelberg makes a raisin challah as well as a plain one and several types of German rolls, including laugen pretzels, which have a slightly crunchy, salty dark brown crust.

• • •

Not all area bakeries make hard-crust European bread. Spring Mill Bakery is celebrating its 10th year in Bethesda, where Steve Rurka, a former Chicago corporate lawyer, makes traditional American soft-crust breads, but with a difference. These are rich and tasty, with little crust and much dough, and make great sandwiches and toast.

My favorite is California walnut-raisin bread, a moist, dark bread with lots of nutmeats. It’s baked on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Apple streusel, a sweet bread with a sugary crust and lots of chunks of apple in the dough, is also a favorite. The whole-wheat bread is fine for sandwiches.

Breads Unlimited is another Bethesda bakery that makes more traditional bread. It bakes several nice light rye breads (corn rye, German rye and pumpernickel), a light French walnut bread and a very good challah. The breads are no longer baked at the Bethesda location and are brought in every morning.

• • •

Few Middle Eastern breads can compare to Atilla Kan’s pita. The good-size oval loaves are soft, tender and delicious. They keep well and freeze beautifully. Heat them in the oven or a toaster, and they puff up to regain their freshness. Mr. Kan, who was born in Adana, Turkey, makes and sells his bread in Springfield and the pita at his two carry-out locations in Alexandria called, appropriately, Atilla’s Perfect Pita — one at the Canal Center and the other on King Street near the Masonic Temple.

“The secret of my pita,” Mr. Kan says with a twinkle in his eye, “is the way the dough is treated” — but he won’t say exactly how he treats it.

Atilla’s pita sells for 35 cents per loaf; it’s available at a hefty markup at Sutton Place Gourmet, Dean & Deluca and Whole Foods. It’s fresh every day.

Mr. Kan also bakes wonderfully chewy breadsticks similar to the pita. They’re not always available, but call ahead, and they’ll be ready when you arrive. They’re a treat with Atilla’s delicious hummus.

• • •

Larger stores such as Sutton Place Gourmet and Whole Foods also have full bakeries but no longer make their breads in-house. Sutton Place uses a central bakery in Rockville. Its breads vary in quality. Whole Foods until recently baked in each market but now receives par-baked dough from a central warehouse, and the dough comes from Boston, all at a cost to quality.

For a last-minute purchase, Safeway makes par-baked “artisan” breads. They’re not as good as the best of the best, but the “flute” (actually a baguette) and the “pugliese” (an Italian bread similar to ciabatta but more flavorful) are quite satisfactory. The pugliese makes especially good toast.

All of these bakeries produce many varieties: soft-crust sandwich breads, specialty breads, French and Italian loaves in different sizes and shapes, fruit breads and cheese breads.

The bakers give the same advice: Never refrigerate bread (it loses its moisture) and never microwave bread (it becomes tough and chewy). Store bread in a paper bag or place it, cut side down, on a wooden board. Many breads freeze well and can be brought back to their original state by warming in an oven for a few minutes at moderate heat.

And of course, they’re all better with that “jug of wine…and thou.”

Bread making from the start

A handful of flour, a little water, salt if you have it, and a hot surface: That’s all you need to make bread. Of course, the bread you’ll get with those ingredients will be flat and probably quite hard. But it will be bread, which man (and often his woman) has been making since 10,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Yet the ingredients of good leavened, or yeast, bread were always here. Natural fermentation lives all around us — in the air, on trees, the skin of fruit, in the soil — and it is easily captured. For several centuries, bakers obtained the yeast to leaven their bread as byproducts of brewing and winemaking.

But almost anything can be used to begin the process of fermentation, “even a single grape,” says master bread maker Mark Furstenberg of the Bread Line on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

It was not until 1859 that Louis Pasteur identified yeast as a living organism and as the agent responsible for dough leavening. Less than 10 years later, in 1868, two Austro-Hungarian brothers, Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, brought a test tube of live yeast to the United States and manufactured America’s first commercially produced yeast.

Today, there are two kinds of starters for bread.

The so-called sourdough starter, which is made of batter and water and sometimes a natural addition such as fruit or honey, is left out at room temperature to catch natural yeasts and ferment slowly.

When the starter is fully fermented, a piece is mixed with the bread’s additional ingredients, and more flour and water are added to “feed” the starter. These wild yeasts are the “levain” (a natural or “wild” leaven mixed to a doughlike consistency) in “pain au levain,” a classic French bread.

The second, or sponge, starter is made with packaged commercial yeast and ferments in hours rather than days.

Today’s artisan breads are those using natural sourdough starters. The term sourdough was coined by the forty-niners, the men who rushed for California’s gold in 1849. The gold hunters took a mix of flour, potato water and salt, sometimes adding leaves of hops, with them to the remote mining camps of California and, 47 years later, of Alaska. The longer the fermentation, the richer the result.

Bakeries in region

District

• The Bread Line: 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202/822-8900

• Dean & Deluca: 3276 M St. NW. 202/342-2500

• Heller’s Bakery: 3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202/265-1190

• Marvelous Market: 5035 Connecticut Ave. NW and throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia. 202/686-4040

• Left Bank Cafe: 4731 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/237-1100

• Patisserie Poupon: 1645 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/342-3248

• Sutton Place Gourmet: 3901 New Mexico Ave. NW. 202/343-5800

• Wagshal’s Delicatessen and Market: 4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/363-5698

Maryland

• Bonaparte Breads: 8600 Foundry St., Savage, Md. 410/880-0858

• Breads Unlimited: Bradley Shopping Center, 6914 Arlington Road, Bethesda. 301/656-2340

• Eatzi’s: 11501 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301/816-2020

• Spring Mill Bread Co.: 4961 Elm St., Bethesda. 301/654-7970

• Upper Crust Bakery: 13488 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring. 301/879-0622

Virginia

• Atilla’s Perfect Pita: 7653 Fullerton Road, Springfield (703/644-0004); 1640 King St., Alexandria; 951 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria

• Best Buns: 4010 S. 28th St., Shirlington. 703/578-1500

• Cafe 2941: 2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church. 703/270-1515

• Firehook Bakery: 214 N. Fayette St. (703/519-8020) and 105 S. Union St. (703/519-8021), Alexandria, with six stores in the District.

• Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe: 2150 N. Culpeper St., Arlington. 703/527-8394

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