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Good Bread Is Good Reading


November 27, 2007
By Bakers Journal

So what exactly is good bread?

goodbreadbookSo what exactly is good bread?

Most bakers have their own definition of what makes the perfect slice: the ingredients, mixing technique, length of fermentation, baking process – the list goes on. Now, thanks to the efforts of an American historian, there is a codified system for testing bread.

Near the beginning of his excellent and exhaustive book Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It (published by Duke University Press), Steven Laurence Kaplan offers a definition for good bread. Through a graded scale, he considers everything from appearance to smell in a detailed scoring system designed to root out the best baguettes.

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This system is just one example of Kaplan’s attention to detail. A social historian at Cornell University, Kaplan is concerned with the socio-economic context of bread making as much as its taste. Focusing on history, the book traces the importance of bread for French society – from its role in politics to its cultural symbolism.

Tracing the involvement of bakers, millers, government and consumers, Kaplan shows how the relationships between these groups, and their changing fashions, changed the role, price and even taste of bread over the last few centuries. He ends with a profile of some of the best French bakers – the “rivals of Rue Monge” – who are both linked to the past and leaders of the future of French baking.

Kaplan’s book is overall an optimistic one. After tracing a decline in bread consumption and quality, he ends at the present renaissance of bread and the triumph of quality over fluff – a situation echoed in Canada with the trend towards artisan baking and high-quality ingredients.

Perhaps the only complaint about the book is its sheer density: with Kaplan’s level of detail and analysis, the work is not suited for summertime beach reading. That said, for anyone with a broad interest in bread, the book is an excellent and comprehensive look at the product and how it has shaped, and been shaped by, French society.


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