There's a new "wonder" bread on the market, but you won't find it in a red-white-and-blue plastic package. It comes right out of the oven -- hot, aromatic and golden-brown -- and looks every bit a handmade creation, down to the knife slashes on its crusty top.
In fact, the baguette -- or batard or miche -- has been partly baked in California or New Jersey, then shipped frozen to your local Shaw's, Hannaford, IGA, Price Chopper, A & P or... City Market? In early August, Burlington's downtown grocery store plans to start carrying La Brea -- a mass-produced, parbaked product that is challenging the definition of artisan bread. No matter how you slice it, these loaves represent serious competition for Vermont bakers, many of whom feel betrayed by a food store that has made a practice of putting local first.
Back in 1977, shoppers didn't really notice the first fresh-baked loaves of artisan bread at the Shelburne Supermarket. Originally wrapped in paper bags, the product was "invisible" to people accustomed to buying bread in plastic, according to O Bread founder Chuck Conway. The handcrafted local loaves weren't called "artisan," either. Their existence simply suggested "a whole approach to living and eating food and being together," says Conway.
Twenty-seven years later, his Shelburne Farms bakery turns out 4000 loaves a week. City Market distributes more than 20 varieties, including plain and seeded baguettes, French country, whole wheat, spelt, fig anise, olive ciabatta and cinnamon-raisin swirl. On a recent Sunday night at City Market, all but the sliced sesame wheat had sold out. The savory stocks of Red Hen, Klinger's, Crescent Moon, Junior's, Harvest, Stewart's and other area artisan bakers were similarly picked over: A little sign on the "Deeter's" rack announced the Northfield-based baker is taking a few weeks off. And Gerard's popular French loaves have disappeared altogether, at least for awhile -- the baker is recovering from a stroke.
Since Conway started banging out baguettes, dozens of local bakers have jumped on the artisan-bread bandwagon. In fact, the prepared-foods manager at City Market, who now presides over the bakery, is hard-pressed to list them all. Jamie Eisenberg says Burlington's newest bread source, the Great Harvest Bakery on Pine Street, is the "only company I can think of right now that I haven't had barking at the door."
That's because alternative grocery and health-food stores sell the lion's share of the loaves to shoppers who are less concerned with cost and shelf life than quality, health and the satisfaction of buying local. In turn, the store makes sure the fresh bread is prominently displayed. Seventy-five percent of City Market's bread business is artisanal, and it's not so easy to find the Pepperidge Farm. Eisenberg is in the process of "remerchandising" the bakery area, she says, "in a way that might be more welcoming, more casual, rather than the industrial look."
But some bakers feel her intention to start carrying a line of mass-produced bread -- "to help fill in the gaps" -- runs counter to everything the indigenous bread section has come to stand for. Around the beginning of August, City Market will start baking La Brea twice a day -- at lunch and just before the dinner hour. The bakery at Shaw's has been selling the California company's fresh and frozen product for over a year.
Randy George of Red Hen in Duxbury is disappointed by City Market's strategy. He believes a fresh-out-of-the-oven competitor "would have a huge impact on our sales," and claims he has already lost restaurant business to La Brea. For her part, Eisenberg equates it to "one other vendor... It's like another bakery opened in town." Now, when local supplies run low on a Sunday night, City Market can replenish the racks by baking up their own big baguettes for $2.99.
Is this just healthy carb competition or the artisan-bread equivalent of Wal-Mart? La Brea boosters rave about acclaimed artisan baker Nancy Silverton and her work to bring good bread to the masses. About five years ago, she invented a technique that involves pre-baking and flash-freezing dough before shipping. In 10 minutes, you can turn the frozen stuff into tempting loaves. Overnight, artisan bread-making went from a local to a national enterprise. Companies such as Ecce Panis, which supplies Hannaford, are following Silverton's model.
"Last year, sales of artisanal and artisan-style bread in supermarkets and big chains nationwide grew faster than any part of the bread business," The New York Times reported in an article that appeared in March. It quoted bread-industry consultant Peter Franklin, predicting, "The ease of parbaked is really phenomenal. I don't see how anyone will be able to compete with it."
Plus, the bread is damn good. Conway recalls attending a conference at a culinary institute in California that sponsored a baguette contest. Silverton won with a parbaked frozen loaf that wowed the judges. "What I heard was that there was such disbelief and outrage that they did it again. And it won again," Conway says with a laugh.
"It's good quality," and convenient, says co-owner Alison Lane of Mirabelles -- one of La Brea's 2500 regular customers. The Burlington bakery has been using the company's baguettes as sandwich bread for three years. "The only reason... is that it's easier. It's more control for us," she says. "We can keep boxes in the freezer. If we run out, it takes eight minutes to bake" -- and there's no thawing necessary.
There is some handling involved, though. And Lane is the first to admit you can screw it up, either by burning the loaves or cooking them at too low a temperature. Conway says he's had La Brea a few times. "One time was great, all the other times it has been less great. Sooner or later," he says, "everybody's got consistency problems."
The greater problem may be philosophical. Can a mass-produced product that is scarcely touched by human hands be described as "artisan?" That topic is being hotly debated amongst members of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Red Hen's George, who is arguably the most ambitious artisan baker in Vermont today, weighs in regularly on the issue.
"Artisan does not necessarily say anything about the size of the business, but it does say something about the scale on which the bread is made," he explains on the phone from Duxbury, where his staff cranks out up to 1400 loaves a day. A quarter of his business comes from restaurants -- he supplies the bread to Three Tomatoes, and recently developed a sandwich-friendly baguette for Nicco's Cucina.
"Ultimately, a customer really does have to care in order for them to buy from a small bakery like us," he says, noting companies such as Red Hen can't compete on price with La Brea. The Price Chopper on Shelburne Road carried his bread for six months, but it didn't sell well. "Artisan bread is not about, 'How fast can we make this?' Artisan bread is the antithesis of that," George says.
He compares La Brea and the artisan-bread explosion to the microbrew business. After decades drinking Bud and Schlitz, Americans realized beer could actually taste like something. A dozen or so small breweries sprouted in Vermont, and a few of them have survived -- no thanks to the big guys, many of whom responded by launching counterfeit "artisan" quaffs.
The analogy is flawed though, because bread doesn't keep like beer -- or at least, it didn't before. "When you're talking about a perishable product like bread, it has to be local," George says. "We get calls once in a while about shipping, and I encourage people to find their own bakery there. People ask, 'How come you don't ship to New York City?' We wouldn't be what we are if we did."
The owners of newcomer Bohemian Bread in Calais articulate it a little differently. They imagine themselves as "village bakers" in the sense of serving a small community. "We're never going to get really big," says Annie Bakst, whose husband, Robert Hunt, makes and delivers their bread -- Calais country loaf, "Troika 3-Seed," Bohemian rye and rosemary lemon -- as far as City Market. "We bake it in the morning and it's in the stores within two, three -- maximum four hours," Bakst says.
Not surprisingly, Bakst and Hunt are big fans and friends of Jules and Helen Rabin, the founders of Upland Bakery in Plainfield. Along with Conway, the Rabins pioneered the artisan-bread revolution in Vermont. But the couple was never interested in distributing their dense, European-style loaves too far beyond Montpelier. They "retired" two years ago, but still bake every other Friday in the summer, spring and fall.
"We consider it a huge compliment when anybody compares our bread to theirs," Bakst says. One difference? Bohemian Bread has a website, featuring a long essay in which Hunt trashes the "artisan" designation as it applies to chain supermarket bread. He likens its decline to the fate of the term "organic," which he also feels has been watered-down and co-opted by corporate interests. As an alternative, he recommends the term "really good bread."
Can people agree on such a subjective appellation? Ultimately, palates will determine the outcome of this bread war, Bakst suggests. "There are always going to be people who don't know the difference, who say, 'Oh, it's just bread.' But she's confident a bite of Bohemian will win them over.
Could another bread vendor on the shelves -- albeit one that is mass-producing cheaper, less-consistent loaves -- possibly increase interest and excitement in the so-called "artisan" approach? O Bread's Conway says, "There's room for everyone." But later he qualifies his optimism: "In a state with a half-million people, there does seem to be a question of how many pieces you can cut the pie into."