I recently read an article on Medium discussing how Boichik Bagels in Berkeley was voted the Best Bagel in America by the New York Times. I don’t know that I’d agree as my local bagel shop that I’ve been going to for almost forty years has great bagels. But I’m not here to debate that. What struck me in the article though was the following:
…When the New York Times last considered West Coast bagels in 2015, their conclusion was that West Coasters couldn’t make a good one because they tried too hard to innovate. Rather than putting in years of practice to hone and perfect old-world techniques — and to obsess over tiny details like the alkalinity of their water — they tried to create new twists on the traditional bagel, adding in sourdough starter, cooking up gluten-free varieties, and the like.
With bagels, Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation told the Times in 2015, “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.” A great bagel is fundamentally traditional, steeped in long-developed cultural trends and a peoples’ collective memory. It’s not something that benefits from “updating” or from the artisanship and personalization which West Coast chefs often bring to their trade.
Reading those two paragraphs above struck me like ton of bricks!
Though my return to baking started out with just wanting to make a decent loaf of bread, my journey since then has led me to doing my best to replicate old world techniques in the modern age. It harkened me back to a recent conversation where a close friend suggested that I make sourdough baguettes.
I make sourdough baguettes from time to time, but technically, baguettes are typically yeasted breads, using a poolish preferment, or a simply a straight dough as in the pointage en bac or baguettes de tradition methods. To me at least, baguettes using a levain are different. Don’t get me wrong. I love the taste, especially when I use one of my botanical starters. But I normally call the bread I make with levain Sourdough French Bread as opposed to being called a baguette. By French law, breads made with a levain are called “pain au levain.”
I realize that I’m splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my journey: I don’t like to mess with tradition with certain loaves. I may try different methods; for instance, I’ve learned 5 different approaches to make baguettes, but for the most part, I do my best to stick to the traditional methods where I can. This especially rings true for the ancient Italian bread that I make like Pane di Como Antico, or Pane di Altamura. These have literally been made for thousands of years. Who am I to tweak them?
That said, I’m not a curmudgeon. I innovate all the time, experimenting with different flour mixes or adjust protein levels or hydration or even levain amounts. But if I’m making something I intend to call by its traditional name, I pretty much follow the traditional method.
As Emily Winston, owner and chef of Boichick bagels said:
“I wasn’t trying to be an innovative chef, and I wasn’t trying to make something new. I don’t have a horse in that race,” Winston said. Instead, she was “trying to make something that already existed…”
That totally reverberates with me. With the traditional recipes I use, I really don’t want to be an innovator. Obviously, I can’t copy everything that was done hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I certainly don’t have a stone hearth oven. But I do my best to observe the ingredients and processes that are in the recipes. I’m trying to make something that already existed, that has hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition behind it, not to mention bakers who have devoted their entire lives to making that bread. For me at least, I think it’s super important to carry on that legacy where I can.