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The Best of Bread

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By Michele Chandler

I’m not talking about a ‘best of’ album here for us baby boomers – this is about Toronto’s amazing selection of ethnic breads that overwhelm your imagination and your palate.

I took an informal poll amongst some foodies for their personal favourites, and to my delight most came back with not just a loaf and location, but also an anecdote relating to their choice. The best story came from the daughter of an artisanal baker. He came from Calabria, Italy and worked at different places in Toronto, becoming known as the baker “Mastr’ Antonio”. Every day after work he would bring home a hand-kneaded, sponge-yeast bread for his family. Antonio had no time for the chemically-risen (oxidizer-enhanced) breads available to the mass market. Even though he’s no longer with us, his daughter mused that although “she misses the bread, she misses him more”.

Bread is a comfort food, no matter how you slice it. (Sorry for the bad pun.) The phrase “breaking bread” has for centuries symbolized communication, collaboration and conviviality. And remember bread’s role in literature where Persian poet Omar Khayam wrote, “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou” – it still lives on as a great romantic line.

Bread made its first appearance around 8000 B.C., and involved some ground grains that were mixed with water to make a paste. The resulting ‘dough’ was then placed on hot stones to cook and ta da! – the first flatbreads, and the precursors of lavash, pita, roti and tortilla.

About 4000 B.C. the process evolved, and the dough was allowed to ferment for a couple of days. Thus the discovery of leavened bread. Around this time the Egyptians also learned that the process of cooking the dough in an enclosed vessel resulting in uniform baking. Leavening that is done over time, without a catalyst, continues today in the form of sourdough.

There are three basic elements in bread: water, gluten protein from flour and starch from flour. During mixing, the starch absorbs the water and swells. Gluten webs or networks are formed during this process, and the texture becomes sponge-like with miniscule air pockets. The more the dough is kneaded, the more pockets are formed, yielding a finer texture.

The overwhelming selection of bread in Toronto cannot be captured in one small piece, so this week’s column is focused on two staple white flour products – baguettes and bagels.

First some history about the word baguette -- which is a translation of the word ‘wand’ in French. The standards for the best loaves in France include kneading them slowly by hand, and then allowing the dough to slowly rise, with alternating kneading and rising taking place over a number of hours. The final baked product should have a thick crust, good aroma and irregularity in its ‘mie’ or crumb.

I used the most frequently mentioned sources for my baguette evaluation – Ace Bakery, Celestin, Front St. Bakery, Nino D’Aversa and Rahier.

Ace Bakery – city-wide distribution – 416 241 3600, call head office for locations

This bread was a household hit with the chewiest crust. Large air pockets appeared throughout the crumb and the loaf had a strong, yeasty aroma. This was the largest in diameter of all baguettes tasted.

Le Comptoir de Celestin – 623 Mt. Pleasant Rd. 416 544 1733

Celestin’s baguette had good texture and flavour, but was the runt of the litter. It was the palest and smallest of the group, with a salty taste on the back of the tongue. A dollop of unsalted butter brought the bread to life.

Front Street Bakery – in-house brand from Dominion

This baguette was the shiniest and richest of the group. It was very crusty, and had a yeasty aroma. The flavour was a combination of salty and sweet. Butter didn’t add much to the product.

Nino D’Aversa – city-wide distribution – 416 638 3271, call head office for locations

It is not really fair to compare this bread called Vienna Calabrese (included in the ingredient list are rye and whole wheat flour and vegetable shortening), but visually it appears to be the same. The loaf had the largest gas pockets, along with a strong, yeasty aroma. It was the driest of all the loaves, but also the easiest to tear apart. Butter was a welcome addition..

Rahier – 1717 Bayview Ave. (Bayview and Millwood) 416 482 0917

This baguette was perfectly round, and had the thinnest crust. The crumb was very white in colour, delicate in texture, and the flavour had a slightly sour finish. Very shiny exterior.


The Bagel Debate Continues

Many of our cross-border skirmishes seem insignificant when you get a Montréaler and a New Yorker talking about bagels. Neither party will give an inch about what is ‘right and wrong’ about this ubiquitous piece of boiled dough. The primary point of dispute is the cooking methodology. New Yorkers boil the dough in plain water and finish the process by baking the rings in a standard oven. Montréalers add egg to their dough, use honey-flavoured water for boiling, and then finish the product in a wood-fired stove.

Toronto is merely a handmaiden in the controversy, as our bagel institutions continue to make what they perceive to be the ‘best in breed’ from whatever school they adhere to. I’ve reviewed what I think is a cross section of the two styles, and let you, the reader, decide where to cast your vote. Sesame and poppy seed flavours were used for my evaluation. and I also enlisted the assistance of an outspoken New Yorker who “doesn’t bother buying bagels in Toronto”.

St. Urbain Bakery – 895 Eglinton Ave. West – 416 787 6955

The richest flavour of the all the bagels tested, and also had the most seed cover. the cream-coloured inside and light texture yielded a flavourful, fluffy product. Had characteristics most closely aligned with a Montréal bagel but didn’t cut it for the New Yorker’s standards.

Gryfes Bakery – 3421 Bathurst St. – 416 783 1552

The soft bagels had a yeasty aroma and a doughy, chewy texture. The aftertaste was sweet and lingering. When lox cream cheese was smeared on, the bagel took on much better character. It also made the grade as a New York-style product.

Bagel World – 336 Wilson Ave. – 416 635 5931

The sweetest and chewiest of the group. The bagels had long lasting flavour, but didn’t work well with lox cream cheese. because of the texture these were judged to be the closest to a New York bagel.

What a Bagel – 421 Spadina Rd. (many locations) – 416 480 9358

These bagels were very fluffy and with a bright white interior. The flavour was slightly salty, with soft consistency inside and good poppy seed flavour. A close contender with Montréal characteristics.



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