By Maria Pilar Clark

Bread is one of the oldest recorded baked foods, dating back to the Stone Age. Since then, artisan bakers have revived the staff of life with premium, quality ingredients for the modern bread-eater.

Bread added sustenance to the caveman’s saber tooth cat-and-wooly-mammoth-meat-only diet. Egyptians carried it with them into the afterlife. Romans even bowed down to it in their temples … well, maybe not, but they did have hearth ovens constructed within their holy places, and they organized the world’s first Baker’s Guild, which still is alive and well today.
Bread has been loafing around since the Stone Age and, lately, it is enjoying a renaissance in the bread aisle with the rise of whole grains, the fall of plain old white and a renewed interest in artisan — traditional or Old-World style — baking.
Consumers slowly are embracing the newly popular grainy loaves, and for those who aren’t quite convinced that grain is good, various organizations, foodservice operators and manufacturers are providing novice bread-eaters and bread-lovers alike with a breaducation fit for the masses.
Bready or Not
As we find ourselves nearing the end of the year 2006 B.E (Bread-Eating), more consumers are breaking bread for their health and, at the same time, discovering that the staff of life has undergone a tasty evolution since man walked on all fours.
Experimentation with fresh, global tastes, along with a love bordering on obsession with foodstuff imported from abroad, is driving biped breadivores to seek out premium bread with innovative toppings and flavors — fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, sunflower seeds, olives, you name it — that in addition to promising a Tour de France for your mouth, also tout convenience.
In the bread-aisle arena, category leader Pepperidge Farm recently introduced Hearth Fired Artisan Breads, which, according to the Norwalk, Conn.-based company, are made in “the simple, time-honored way, with quality flours and other all-natural ingredients.”
Since each loaf is par-baked and then flash-frozen, this means that consumers can look forward to baking the product in their home ovens, while simultaneously savoring the mouth-watering aroma of fresh-baked bread wafting through the house. Better yet, Pepperidge Farm ditches preservatives in favor of natural varieties such as Rosemary Olive Oil Petite Loaves, Sourdough Petite Loaves, French Demi-Baguettes and Hearty Wheat Rolls.
Budding artisan bread bakers also can delight in Papa Ciro’s Handmade Garlic Knots, Roslyn Heights, N.Y. Made with all-natural ingredients and no preservatives, the knots offer consumers home-baked taste in every bite. Each batch of garlic knots comes with its own baking tray and goes from oven to table in just five minutes. In addition to boasting loads of garlicky goodness, the knots are cholesterol-free, contain no trans fat and are Kosher-certified. As the company notes, “The only preservative we use is tradition.”
And for those consumers who yearn for the taste of artisan quality without having to pre-heat the oven, MJ’s Fine Foods offers its premium Margaret’s Artisan Flatbread line of, well, flatbread. Billed by the Vaughan, Ont.-based company as an “elegant everyday gourmet treat that brings eye-catching appeal to any table,” the flatbread is crafted using all-natural ingredients such as 100% olive oil and is baked from original European, Old-World style recipes. Connoisseurs of the crispy, crunchy, cracker-like product can nibble on Rosemary & Sea Salt, Roasted Garlic & Chives, Cracked Peppercorn & Spice, Jalapeño & Romano and Sundried Tomato & Olive varieties.
“They are one of life’s easy indulgences that can be enjoyed on their own, with delicious dips, spreads and pâtés, or as the perfect accompaniment to soups or salads,” MJ’s says of its flatbread. “Satisfying and nutritious, Margaret’s Artisan Flatbreads are a healthy addition to have on hand all the time.”
 Quick-service and casual dining restaurants ushered in a bread-laden bandwagon at the beginning of the year, revamping their menus and updating their offerings to include artisan bread and rolls such as ciabatta and flatbread.
Wendy’s International, Inc.’s restaurants are on a roll, having introduced new Frescata — a line of fresh, premium deli sandwiches — earlier in 2006 that, according to the company, are giving consumers what they really want to eat at a price that won’t break the bank at $3.49 a la carte and $4.99 with a combo. Adding its first line extension since the line’s initial rollout, Wendy’s is presenting a new Italian-style option — Frescata Italiana — made with Black Forest ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, Romaine lettuce and roasted red peppers on fresh-baked artisan bread with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette dressing. The Dublin, Ohio-based chain notes that consumer response is being reflected in its top line, with sales rising 2.5% in June followed by a 3.6% increase in July.
St. Louis, Mo.-based Panera Bread is a proverbial artisan bread Mecca for consumers, showcasing hand-scored loaves and rounds made with unbleached flour from the company’s own time-honored recipes. Sandwiches at this popular eatery are made-to-order in bread choices such as White Whole Grain made with honey and molasses; tomato basil topped with a sweet walnut streusel; and Artisan Three Cheese, tangy with the combined flavors of Romano, Parmesan and Asiago. Who wants a sandwich when you can much medieval-style on a whole loaf, savoring that porous crumb and robust flavor?
As the company contends on the Bread Homage area of its Web site, “Artisan bread is perhaps even more special. Made with our unique artisan starter, artisan breads are individually hand-shaped and hand-scored and come in an array of loaves and flavors, such as mellow or sharp cheeses, piquant Greek olives or fresh herbs. Choosing a loaf of artisan bread is not unlike choosing a fine wine.”
Some bakers, such as Longmont, Colo.-based Gerards, The Custom Bread Co., are partnering with regional foodservice chains. Gerards just launched two preservative-free custom roll and loaf-style breads in conjunction with West Coast-based eatery, Rockin’ Baja Lobster, a full-service Baja-style Cantina & Grill. The “cornmeal rustic” concept breads boast a Cornmeal Wrinkled-Top Roll variety, which was created to compliment hamburgers and specialty sandwiches, and a two-foot French Style Loaf that is ideal for grilling.
Bread has a long-standing place in our history books for a reason. It’s a healthful, comforting food that has come a long way since the caveman decided to bake some wheat and see what would happen.
The Grain Foods Foundation’s Grains For Life campaign tagline says it best: “Bread. It’s Essential.” SF&WB
Sour Dough
This tongue-in-cheek commentary from illustrates the supposed ill effects bread can have on those who consume it and the humor surrounding bread’s misconceived reputation, stemming from the infamous Atkins Diet.
1. More than 98% of convicted felons are bread eaters.
2. Fully half of all children who grow up in bread-consuming households score below average on standardized tests.
3. In the 18th century, when virtually all bread was baked in the home, the average life expectancy was less than 50 years; infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, yellow fever and influenza ravaged whole nations.
4. More than 90% of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread.
5. Bread is made from a substance called “dough.” It has been proven that as little as 1 lb. of dough can be used to suffocate a mouse. The average American eats more bread than that in one month!
6. Primitive tribal societies that have no bread exhibit a low occurrence of radiation poisoning, skin cancer, food poisoning and octogenarians.
7. Bread has been proven to be addictive. Subjects deprived of bread and given only water to eat begged for bread after only two days.
8. Bread is often a “gateway” food item, leading the user to “harder” items such as jelly and peanut butter.
9. Bread has been proven to absorb water. Since the human body is more than 90% water, it follows that eating bread could lead to your body being taken over by this absorptive food product, turning you into a soggy, gooey bread-pudding person.
10. Newborn babies can choke on bread.
11. Bread is baked at temperatures as high as 400° F! That kind of heat can kill an adult in less than one minute.
12. Most bread eaters are utterly unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.
Loaf Enforcement
In medieval times, jolly old England wasn’t quite so jolly. In all honesty, neither was the rest of Europe. Kings were battling it out with each other over everything — taxes, land, fiefdoms, the indentured slaves that came along with them and … the price of bread.
Bread was so integral a part of people’s lives during that time that it was the subject of special laws throughout each and every kingdom. Bakers were made to adhere to strict regulations that were intended to protect the consumer. For example, in France, specific laws prevented bakers from increasing the price of bread beyond a point justified by the price of the raw materials. This price was fixed every week or two. England went beyond France’s precedent by establishing a law that was passed in 1266 that regulated the price of bread permanently. The law remained in effect for an impressive 600 years.
Those bakers who didn’t stick to the bread laws were liable to fines, imprisonment and even corporal punishment. During times of famine, when bread was scarce, it was even customary to hang a baker or two. To offset this loss, master bakers often kept an assistant or two in their employ. In exchange for a earning some extra dough, the apprentice would agree to appear before the magistrate should a victim be required.
White Bread for the Wealthy
Artisan bakers have been honing their craft for eons, back when bakers really were just primitive hunters bored with wandering around with spears all day and bread was just a fancy word for what was really just a haphazardly assembled, hard, nubby, rudimentary cake made from stone-crushed wheat and barley.
Fortunately for us, those early carnivores with a hankering for something a little less bloody figured out that wheat was an edible food source. They would stockpile it outside their caves. When the wheat got wet, it would sprout. After much head-scratching and eyebrow-raising, the population caught on, planted it the next year, dumped more water on it, watched it grow and settled down into communities, which paved the way for more developed peoples to learn the art of sowing, reaping and, ultimately, baking.
According to the Grain Foods Foundation, Egyptians — who were called “bread eaters” by the Greeks and smarty-pants by other civilizations — discovered the leavening process and the wonders of yeast, which led them to develop other principles of artisan baking. Renown for their artistry and skill, Egyptian bakers were considered veritable master-bread builders in their field.
In imitation lies flattery, in which case, the Greeks flattered the crumbs out of the Egyptians by assiduously borrowing their artisan bread-baking techniques and spreading them out all over Europe like butter on a warm baguette. Thereafter, throughout much of history, a person’s social status could be determined by the class of bread they piled their meats on or sopped their sauces with. Dark, whole grain loaves were considered the calling card of the poor and downtrodden, while blindingly white bread was the signature of a gold sandal-wearing, richly robed individual.
Here we are, a millennium later, and it’s whole grains that are getting the royal treatment.