The real first course
For diners beginning a meal, bread is near- and dear
Bread is the staff of life, the thing we all work to put on the table. At restaurants, it's a promise of what's to come in the meal ahead. Good bread, with good butter or olive oil, makes us anticipate the food. It is, in essence, the real first course - the appetizer's appetizer. But stale, uninspired white bread; limp pieces with crust that whimpers rather than crunches; bread that tastes like cotton batting: These things do not inspire confidence. The breadbasket is a culinary welcome mat. Sometimes it gets pulled out from under us.
"I don't believe you can have a great restaurant if you don't have great bread," says Sel de la Terre chef Geoff Gardner. "They say you can judge a restaurant by its restrooms. If they're clean and neat and orderly, that gives you a good feeling about standards. I think bread sends a similar message. If someone cares enough to put out a really great product, it speaks volumes about the restaurant and its passion for food."
It's no surprise, then, that Sel de la Terre's breadbasket is one of the best in town - a metal vessel lined with a white napkin in which nestle wonderfully yeasty, thick-crusted slices of fig-anise, olive, country sourdough, and more, made largely by hand from starters more than a decade old at the restaurant's Newmarket Square baking facility. When you've emptied your basket, a server offers more. It creates a feeling of generosity.
Recently, that generosity is more than a feeling, it's a financial fact. Bread is falling on hard times. According to a Congressional Research Service report, the USDA projects that the average farm price received for wheat between June 2007 and May 2008 will be $6.45-$6.85 per bushel, about 46 percent more than the previous US record of $4.55 in 1995-96.
Says Allison Furbish, media relations coordinator for King Arthur Flour, "We have seen enormous increases in flour costs, as has everybody. In the last 10 months, the cost of flour has increased by about 300 percent. That's huge."
Why are wheat prices so high? There are multiple factors. Ethanol production is driving up corn and soybean prices; consequently, farmers are switching from growing wheat to growing corn. Global wheat stocks are low, harvests have been poor around the world, other countries have little wheat to export, and there's a strong international demand for US wheat.
Last month, the American Bakers Association marched in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to high wheat prices. "Bakeries are seeing the same kinds of increases we're seeing," Furbish says. "We have tried to do things internally in our company to reduce the number passed on to customers, becoming more efficient, but we can't absorb the whole 300 percent." Over the last year, a 5-pound bag of all-purpose King Arthur flour cost an average of $2.89 at the grocery store. Over the next few months, she says, customers may see that go up to $4.99.
Of course, food costs are up across the board - the breadbasket isn't the only place consumers and restaurants are being hit. But restaurants turn a profit from selling, say, beef or Italian wine. They have nothing tangible to gain from shelling out for complimentary bread. The slang use of the word as a synonym for money suddenly seems relevant again.
Michael Rhoads's B&R Artisan Breads supplies about 50 local establishments, including those of the Aquitaine Group, Mare, Bricco, and Formaggio.
"Restaurants will really have to evaluate whether they give the bread for free if the prices continue to go up the way they are," he says. He generally raises prices only once a year - the last increase was in January. But eventually, he says, "I will have to pass on the price increase. When I do, I think that will really call into question the per customer cost of bread service." Should new restaurants even offer it? "I don't like to shoot myself in the foot, but if you're not already serving bread on the table, maybe you don't want to open that way."
More restaurants may start following the example of Neptune Oyster in the North End, where bread is served only upon request. "We tend to not suggest it to people because we want people to eat oysters and fish and not fill up on bread," chef Nate Nagy says. "Bread is going up rapidly. It's already a pretty big cost on a weekly basis. We try to limit how much we're giving away as far as people asking for multiple servings. If they're eating bread, they're not eating something that they're buying."
But fear not - the breadbasket is far from an endangered species. "Will you see it as a charge instead of a freebie?" asks Rhoads, a former Sel de la Terre baker. "I think there's potential for that. But restaurants were founded on the idea of a hearty stew and a slice of bread. That was the original concept, and you'll be hard-pressed to get all the way away from it."
Instead, chefs will have to get inventive to save money - something they're not exactly new to. "We look at it as a challenge," Gardner says. "This is what it is - how can we attack it, find ways to be more energy efficient, have less waste, negotiate better prices, make delivery routes more efficient?"
At Rialto in Cambridge, the Tuscan rolls, green olive and rosemary focaccia, and cheese breadsticks are made in house, and that's not likely to change any time soon. "I have somebody who bakes the bread," says chef and owner Jody Adams. "He's been working for me for at least 10 years, and during hard times the last thing I want to do is squeeze on jobs. We don't want to raise our prices, so as entrepreneurs we have to be really creative."
Instead of buying panko, they now make their own bread crumbs from extra rolls. Stale bread becomes dumplings for a rabbit dish traditional to Alto Adige, or the complimentary bruschetta Rialto serves on weekdays from 5-7 p.m., topped with anything from octopus salad with harissa to prosciutto and figs.
Done well, bread can distinguish a restaurant and help brand it - witness Parker House rolls. When it brings customers in, it becomes more than just a freebie. Bertucci's, for example, has gained a real following for its rolls: People come in just to buy bags of them.
"We make the dough ourselves," says Maria Feicht, senior vice president of marketing and menus. "It rises for 24 hours, and we bake it every 20 minutes. That ensures not just freshness but warmth. It's one of the things that has set us apart."
Union Bar and Grille is also known for its bread. In keeping with the seasonal American cuisine, the restaurant serves sweet corn bread that comes to the table hot in a little skillet. It's become a hallmark, says chef de cuisine Stephen Sherman. "Anybody who thinks about Union thinks about the corn bread. It really has a wow factor. We give out comment cards and ask customers for feedback. If we were to take it off, we'd get lots of comment cards: 'Where's the corn bread? What did you do with it?' It's one of our signatures, and it will stay."
Good bread weathered the low-carb craze, and it will weather high wheat prices. "It's like the most fundamental, basic food of the ages for thousands of years," Gardner says. "In many ways, it transcends time and place and country and culture. Everybody loves bread."
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.