Try to take yourself back to the pre-Macarena days of 1993, the days when Democrats looked set to dominate American politics for the foreseeable future, when Hootie and the Blowfish ruled the music charts, and, though hearing that Michael Jackson was doing the soundtrack for a movie called "Free Willy" was funny, it wasn't nearly as creepy as it is today.
Those were the days when Sun-Dried Tomatoes ruled, before they were replaced by Roasted Red Peppers on trendy restaurant menus, which were soon replaced by Wasabi, which was replaced by Chipotle, which was replaced by Halibut Cheeks, which were replaced by Tapas, which, I am sure, has already been replaced by the latest food trend (Chorizo, perhaps?).
Try to remember what the bread aisle was like in 1993. In most of America the bread aisle was pretty homogenous, with 12 grain or cinnamon raisin bread being the most exotic thing you'd find. Even at trendy, high end grocery stores (which weren't yet trendy and were still known as health food stores), most of the breads you'd find had names touting their healthfulness, names like "Health Nut Bread," "Brantastic Voyage," or "Speltgasm."
But within a year or two something changed: the health food stores began to dust themselves off and become chichi. Out went the dense, plastic wrapped multigrain loaves of breads that seemed to sit on the shelf for weeks. In went racks of bread in paper bags with Italian and French sounding names, names like "Ciabatta" and "Pain de Campagne," breads that were delivered fresh each day if not baked fresh on site. The Artisan Bread Movement was here.
What changed? Certainly a general 90's trend toward "all things rustic and evocative of peasants are chic" had something to do with it (see David Brooks' hysterical Bobos in Paradise for more on this trend). But a baking book came out that year that had a lot to do with it: Joe Ortiz's The Village Baker.
Though I had heard a great deal about it, I finally got around to reading The Village Baker this month. I actually found reading it to be underwhelming. It's a great book, but I've read so many books that follow the same format, that contain recipes for the same breads, and that discuss the same techniques, that it was difficult for me to appreciate how big a deal this book had been. It reminded me of the first time I heard The Velvet Underground: I didn't find them all that interesting, because just about every band I listened to at the time (Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Bauhaus) had listened to the Velvet Underground and ripped off their sound. Growing up in the musical world they had largely created, it was difficult for me to grasp how significant they had been. Such was the experience of reading The Village Baker.
The Village Baker describes the recipes and techniques that Ortiz picked up traveling through France, Italy, and Germany, with a few American recipes from proto-artisan bakeries thrown in as well. The emphasis is on authenticity. Many of the breads require starters or sponges, and almost all are slow-rise, low yeast breads. There is more of a focus on the techniques the European bakers used than in creating breads with exotic ingredients. Bread machine recipes you will not find here.
I think it is hard to overestimate how significant this book was. Even if you don't use it often, having a copy in your kitchen is almost required for a self-proclaimed artisan bread fan. Like a copy of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew on the jazz buff's shelf, you've got to have a copy if you want to be respected by your peers.
The Village Baker is a solid book. I think some of the artisan bread books that have come out since have done a better job of adapting the techniques and recipes used by the professional village bakers to the home baking environment (my old standby, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, comes to mind immediately). Fully a third of The Village Baker contains recipes for baking on the scale a professional would bake on and is of no use to the home baker. Instead of standardizing on one or two starters, many of the recipes require building their own starters, which is appropriate given Ortiz's emphasis on capturing the authentic recipes and techniques used by the professional bakers he met, but it makes many of the recipes unattainable for all but the most diehard amateur baker. Because of this I don't think I would recommend this book to someone just getting into artisan bread baking and looking for their first book on the subject: even though it is the book that started it all, the complexity of some of the recipes is daunting.
For those of us who are already obsessed with bread baking, who own multiple bread books and are always on the lookout for more books on the subject, The Village Baker is a must-have book. The recipes that I've managed to bake have been excellent, and the writings on technique, such as how to deal with slack doughs, I've found to be extremely valuable. And it's just plain "an important book" that any self-proclaimed bread junkie should own.