Ethnicity is a people thing. In a sense, it’s a bread thing too. Wheat, while not universal, is widespread among the world’s people.
What people do with wheat, region to region, often gives the products an identity associated with the prevailing cultures or ethnicities. Think about it: nan from India, pita from the Arabic Middle East, the baguette from France. A Jewish contribution, beside matzos and challah, well may be the bagel, since 1610, associated with the Jews of Poland’s Krakow, though the provenance is murky.
At Breadsmith, a European “style” of bread-making is part of the tradition, according to Ward Bahlman, who owns and operates this franchised bread shop. He says that the lineage of bread can be traced, perhaps not with the precision of DNA evidence, but with the certainty of historical fact spanning centuries. When you step up to his counter and buy his bread products, in a real sense, you are connecting with ethnicities dating back thousands of years in some cases.
“Breads, or more broadly, wheat products, do have an association with countries or cultures or ethnicities, and you can see that reflected on our shelves,” he said. “We have the ciabatta from Italy, for instance, and the dough for this bread is very different from regular bread dough – difficult to work with. It’s loose and hard to handle. In fact, I’ve been told that the skill of a baker can in part be judged by how that dough is handled (prior to baking).”
If a baker can master ciabatta, the wisdom goes, that is a feather in his or her cap for sure.
Ciabatta is started as an 18-hour poolish, or pre-ferment, of the dough, and when it is prepared for baking it comes out as an irregular shape. The word ciabatta means slipper in Italian. Breadsmith features a regular ciabatta and a rosemary-garlic version. Both versions share an Italian identity, though.
As does the focaccia, a flatbread similar in texture and chew to pizza dough when baked. Focaccia bread dates to perhaps 750 BCE, as part of the Etruscan civilization, located in the middle northern part of today’s Italy.
“When we bake these bread products, we are carrying on traditions with really ancient origins,” Bahlman said.
The French flag flies in the form of several breads at Breadsmith. First and foremost, in my book, is the baguette, a bread masterpiece. Is there anything better than a well-baked baguette and some good butter or cheese, complemented by a bottle of wine? Hard to beat!
Also, there is brioche, a buttery French bread first mentioned in historical records 1404 CE. This bread type, a 3:2 mix of flour and butter, likely originated in the north of France, where the use of butter was widespread. In addition, Breadsmith features French peasant bread and the French boule.
Possibly beating the baguette as bread masterpiece is the croissant, flaky and buttery, and a treat unto itself. The bakeries of Vienna, Austria, claim this quintessential European wonder, dating to the 14th century CE. Good jam, good butter, or just pulled apart and eaten as is, this treat is one of the joys of the palate. Breadsmith bakes the traditional horn-shaped variety, along with the chocolate croissants, a folded pillow shape you’ll find everywhere in western Europe. My sense is that you’ll love Breadsmith’s croissants, whether regular or chocolate.
Jumping off the continent to Merry Old England, Breadsmith features scones, in cranberry-orange, blueberry-lemon, and on a rotating basis, apricot-almond. The origin of scones dates to old English, the language that is, perhaps the 10th to 12th centuries CE, and probably came from Scotland or the Scottish region of Northern England. Whatever the origin, scones are another ancient ethnic treat we enjoy today.
Germanic peoples join the mix with rye breads. Germans tend to be credited with rye breads, especially the heavier types and the salted ryes. However, dark ryes were a staple of the Middle Ages, and were prevalent all over Eastern and Western Europe. Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Austrians and Germans all made dark ryes of one sort or another over a long span or centuries.
The bread was considered a commoners’ fare, the grain often coming from North-Central Europe, hence the German connection. German or not, you’ll find dark ryes rich in caraway seeds on the Breadsmith shelves. The salted rye was my dad’s favorite, eaten with a smear of Limburger cheese and a slice of onion – even today, I remember the odor! – he loved it.
“Also, we make a pumpernickel brick, a very dense 2-pound loaf, and it is literally like a brick, almost the consistency of a cracker. It’s great for spreads and that sort of thing,” Bahlman said.
Challah is another bread of yore, with strong ethnic ties to ancient Jewish tribes. Challah braids are mentioned in biblical writings of unknown chronology and origin. Suffice it to say that these rich, eggy breads have been around for millennia as well, and are bound to Jewish tradition and ceremony in deeply cultural and religions ways. Breadsmith features three sizes of the braided variety; large, medium and mini. Also, Bahlman bakes a coiled version for the high holydays.
See you at Breadsmith!
3500 Michigan Ave.
Cincinnati, Ohio, 45208