Juxtaposition: Gluten-free and the Craft Baking Renaissance

June 15, 2014

Gluten-free. Gluten intolerant. Anti-gluten. Gluten-curious. Gluten intolerance is a sham.

Everywhere we turn, we hear about gluten. Celiac disease, or celiac sprue, may affect between 1 in 105 to 1 in 1750 Americans. That’s a big spread, and translates to between 180,000 and 3,000,000 people.

Celiac sprue is a recognized disease. Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, provokes debate. Here’s some information from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and a piece in Forbes, written by Steven Ross Pomeroy and published on from May 15, 2014, titled Gluten Intolerance May Not Exist.

The spread of the gluten free movement does not surprise me. Food movements spread quickly. Remember fat-free? I’d like 20 cents now for every box of SnackWell’s Ms. J and I consumed. Or “no-carbs,” aka the Atkins Diet? We’re followers, most of us. We’re not, collectively, especially health eaters. Too many of us are weight-challenged. So … none of this is why I’m writing today, mostly.

I’m writing about bread. In A Life at Fifty-Ish I observed:

Bread is a most amazing product! Flour. Yeast. Salt. Water. Boring ingredients. Inedible on their own, but for water. Together—adding time and minimal effort—these lowly ingredients produce the staff of life. Simply amazing!

Apologies for quoting myself, but I do hold by these words! And what amazes me now is the renaissance in great bread, coming along side-by-side with the anti-gluten movement.

Let me dispense first with gluten free bread and bakeries. No doubt, much can be done with the mix of stuff that goes into a gluten-free baked product. And I’ve tasted some pretty good stuff. (I expect to be baking Gluten-Free Brownie Brittle soon.) That said, I have never had decent gluten free bread, and I think it can’t be done. Prove me wrong, please, as I suspect—and have successfully avoided an answer—that I have some gluten issues.

I’ve been on a pain levain quest for about 18 months or so. Pain levain is, as I know it, a country sourdough bread, generally baked in an oval shape, free-formed. Not especially sour, like the famous San Francisco sourdough bread you find at the airport, made by Boudin Bakery. Instead, a good pain levain tastes like, well, like the country, rustic and natural.

No mail orders yet, but I’ve had pain levain in San Francisco, New York, and Tucson. (Soon, I’m pretty sure I need to get some bread from Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor. Actually, I think I just need to go to Ann Arbor and eat at Zingerman outposts for a few weeks.) Places I have been to include, in San Francisco, Acme Bread Company, the now ubiquitous Bay area bakery, and Le Marais Bakery in the Marina District. Ms. J, on a recent trip to SF, brought back two loaves—pre-ordered and paid for, which avoids the lines and getting shut out—from Tartine Bakery in the Mission. Best? Tartine, followed by Le Marais.

In New York I’ve been to three extraordinary bakeries:  Balthazar; Bien Cuit; and Sullivan St. Bakery. Balthazar pain levain was great. Bien Cuit makes a Miche that, I think, represents a variety of pain levain. One fine bread, and I was disappointed on my last visit to New York when I discovered Bien Cuit’s retreat from Manhattan back to Brooklyn. And Sullivan Street? I had no bread from there, but I do have something to look forward to.

And the overall best pain levain? Better than the breads from SF and NY, even the pain levain you may not get at Tartine (because it’s all gone)? Easy call, truly, and it’s only five minutes from work. Time Market makes an amazing pain levain. Tender and pull apart fresh, its crust has a slightly bitter taste that blends very well with the innards. One great loaf of bread, $7.00 (and it’s a big loaf), and it’s extraordinary!

Now, I thought my fine bread universe started and ended with pain levain. A guy can only handle so much, right? Then I read this piece, Russ & Rye:  [Re]Building the Jewish Bakery Tradition by Andrew Coe, posted at Serious Eats on June 11. Checking regularly for a mail order page.

Now, briefly setting aside pain levain and other amazing loaves, here are yesterday afternoon’s bialys, made from the recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose levy Beranbaum’s great bread-baking guide. They will be breakfast in a bit.


Have a wonderful Sunday, and don’t forget your father!!!

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