I was asked to put together a tasting of baguettes available in the East Bay for a dinner party, and by the time I was done, I had 10 different baguettes from seven different bakeries (I now have seven partial baguette loaves -- if anyone has any ideas on what to do with them, I started a thread on the Home Cooking board).
Purchased direct from the bakery:
Bread Garden: "Traditional"
Bread Garden: "Country French Sourdough"
Bread Garden: "19th Century"
La Farine: "Rustic"
Feel Good Bakery: "French"
From Whole Foods:
Artisan Bakery: Sour baguette
Semifreddi: Sweet baguette
La Brea: Sour baguette
Grace: Sour baguette
Acme: The person who was supposed to pick up an Acme "rustic" from the Berkeley bakery called in sick, so someone brought a standard Acme sour baguette that was apparently purchased at a market.
One reason I bought some baguettes at Whole Foods (in particular the Semifreddi) was that I wanted to see if there was a difference between store-bought and bakery-bought baguettes, and to my mind there clearly was. I thought all the bakery-purchased breads showed a distinctly higher quality. At the very least, they were fresher (the La Farine was still warm when I bought it that afternoon, and I believe the Feel Good was also from their "late bake"). I bought Semifreddi because their baguettes are ubiquitous; sadly this baguette actually met my expectation in that I thought it was the most characterless of the bunch, with a mass-produced look and taste.
The clear winners in my book were the French baguette from Feel Good and the 19th Century baguette from Bread Garden. Although the texture was faulted for being a bit soft (perhaps because it was a little *too* fresh), the Feel Good baguette had the most complex, well-developed flavor. The 19th Century baguette also had a complex flavor and a satisfying chew.
The La Farine baguette made a surprisingly poor showing. It was also a little soft (again, too fresh?) and blander than I expected. The Bread Garden Country French Sourdough had the most pronounced sourdough flavor of the bunch, but it wasn't as crusty as I would have liked. Not surprisingly, the Acme had the best thick, chewy crust, but I was surprised how bland it tasted next to some of the others. The La Brea is very similar to the Acme. The Bread Garden "traditional" and the Artisan fell into the "decent but not exciting" category, and the Grace landed next to the Semifreddi at the bottom.
I had actually gone into Whole Foods intending to buy butter, and when they didn't have the butter I'd gone in for (Jana Valley, which they apparently aren't carrying anymore), I couldn't decide what to buy. That's when I figured we might as well have a little butter tasting to go with our bread, and bought four different unsalted butters:
Celles sur Belles -- French, 82% fat, includes "milk cultures"
Parmagiano Reggiano "Il Burro" -- Italian, 83% fat, includes "cultures"
Anchor -- New Zealand, 82.9% (that's what it says!) fat, no mention of cultures
Orangic Pastures Raw Butter -- ingredients: raw cream, no fat content listed, but according to their respective nutritional lables, a 15 ml serving has one less gram of fat than the New Zealand butter (11 rather than 12).
The Parmagiano was the most distinct. According to the label, it's made with the same appellation/quality controlled milk used to make the cheese of the same name. I don't know if it was the power of suggestion or if the cultures they use are the same (seems likely), but it has a very cheesy smell and taste. I would use this butter on the table, but not for baking.
Conversely, the Anchor had a sweet, clean taste. A very good "neutral" butter that would be perfect for baked goods that shine with high quality butter.
The Celles sur Belle I thought was the best "all purpose" butter of this group. A little more flavorful than the Anchor, but without the cheesy/earthy flavors of the stronger butters.
Finally, the raw butter. I've been looking for an excuse to buy this, since it's very expensive ($7.99 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods). But if you like butter that actually tastes like it came from a cow, than this is for you: strong, complex flavor with just a bit of buttery sweetness on the finish.
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