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BREAD ON THE RISE.

The hottest new commodity in town, bread is providing a feast of yeasts for Sarasota shoppers and diners.

Bread is simplicity itself. Yet even the weariest sophisticate thrills to the warm, golden goodness of fresh-baked wheat crust smeared with sweet cream butter. Created with the most basic elements, bread comforts, satisfies and symbolizes hearth and home, all at the same time.

The hands that fashion the loaves perpetuate an art dating back to primitive cultures. Bread remains the mainstay of meals in Third World countries even as it enjoys celebrity status in gourmet magazines and chi-chi eateries. What fashion shoot can capture a sight as alluring as a single perfect brioche in a basket or slender semolina loaves stacked in gleaming wooden bakery racks? And then there is the fragrance of baking bread, the olfactory rush brought on by the smell of warm dough wafting through the room, lifting spirits with each yeasty inhalation.

One would have guessed that Sarasota would be on the cutting edge of the bread board. Here is a city originally settled by Scots and peopled by salt-of-the-earth sailors and shrimpers, leavened with cosmopolites and seasoned by visitors with solid Midwestern values. We should have been pioneers in multi-cultural breadmaking. But until recent times, Sarasota was a white bread borough. We cut off crusts, sent our children to school with peanut butter on Wonder and felt safe knowing that the Pillsbury doughboy was right behind the refrigerator door.

But an influx of European visitors, the revitalization of downtown and a surge of young entrepreneurs from the big city have made bread a hot new commodity in town. Specialty markets are offering all sorts of unusual breads, from ethnic stand-bys to designer creations; restaurants are building reputations on their original breads; and new bakeries are popping up like cinnamon rolls. You can't stroll down Main Street, shop the malls or go out for dinner without noticing bread's rise in status.

And just what makes a really great bread? Bakers, restaurateurs, gourmets and gourmands agree that flavor is most important; and that's affected by every thing from the texture to the quality and freshness of ingredients. Delicious bread, whether a nutty whole-grain or sweet cinnamon raisin, offers a mouthful of flavor with each bite. The taste should stay consistent slice after slice and hold up under additions of butter, margarine, jams or honey. Texture varies with bread types, but a good crust is crusty or crisp or chewy, never tough or dry. The interior of the bread may be loose or dense, grainy or fluffy, but good bread is never airy and full of holes, nor is it spongy or doughy or sticky. Freshness is easily determined after a single mouthful. Stale bread is good only for bread puddings and turkey stuffing. And looks count. A rounded, smooth, evenly browned bread outranks loaves that are lopsided, misshapen or darker at the ends.

Bearing these criteria firmly in mind, we asked some of Sarasota's bakeries to show us the dough. Here's what we discovered-but there are lots more bread shops out there, so be sure to conduct your own taste study as well.

Bakers at Il Panificio bake bread in a huge brick oven imported from Italy, and what comes out are smooth whole wheat rounds, plump peasant loaves, long loaves of Italian bread and the fine semolina breads made from the same flour used for pasta. The actual baking is done in Palmetto; then the breads are brought to Main Street very early in the morning and arranged in wooden bakery cases for customers to enjoy on the premises or carry home. Regulars hold their loaves on their laps and enjoy a leisurely espresso at stone and tile tables beneath an outdoor awning.

The lunch crowd sits on stools at high tables indoors, wolfing down deli cold cuts piled high on the wildly popular pizza bread. Almost everyone leaves with a loaf of something, because owners Tracy and Nick Melone make their breads so fresh and light that the dough melts in your mouth and the crusts are wonderfully chewy. "A good bread requires fermentation," explains Tracy. "The dough must be allowed ample time to ferment because this is what gives the bread its flavor. That and a terrific oven spells success." As well as bagging bread for customers, Il Panificio staff is sliding pizza in and out of ovens on huge wooden paddles as early as 8 a.m., for those hard-core pie lovers who cannot start their day without a slice. Tomato sauce, garlic and parmesan. Breakfast of champions.

When Thierry Riahi and Chrisrophe Coutelle open their doors at C'est la Vie every morning, a line is already forming down Main Street. Customers clamor for the French bakery's multi-grain cereal breads, three-flour farmer bread, and specialty walnut, onion, olive and bacon loaves. At 9 a.m. on a recent rainy day, every prettily tiled table in the cheerful yellow and terra cotta boulangerie was taken. Conversation among customers was animated and mostly in French. Baskets lined with Pierre Deaux fabric held assortments of brioches, croissants and baguettes; and customers good-naturedly argued above the French music about what makes the best croissant.

"The croissant must be buttery and tender, must melt in your mouth but remain flaky," asserts Shana Profitt of Sarasota, a regular at C'est la Vie. "I have traveled throughout Europe, vacationed repeatedly in Paris and lived in Italy, but these croissants are the best I have ever tasted."

Scott Proffitt adds that the croissant is especially difficult to master because the layers must be individually rolled at a specific temperature or they will fuse and become too soft and doughy. "The creator of each croissant walks that fine border between science and art," he says.

Proprietor Riahi claims that the most essential ingredient for great bread is a great baker. That, and an oven brought over from France. At C'est la Vie, everything is baked on the premises and the warm interior is fragrant with smells of fresh loaves. The whole-wheat bread tastes delicious, dark and flavorful with a nutty essence and dense texture. Classic French bread, thickly spread with butter and preserves, is a staple on nearly every table and tastes light and fresh with a crisp exterior.

Swedish rye (called limpa), German pumpernickel, and breads flavored with orange peel and anise are hot sellers for Scandinavian Gifts, Baked Goods and Groceries on Gulf Gate Drive. None of these breads is actually baked on location, but imported (frozen) from authentic Scandinavian bakeries around the country and the world. Loyal customers hungry for that Olde Worlde taste buy their three-grain loaves here for sandwiches and their sweet cardamom breads to slice and serve with coffee. It's strictly a take-out shop, but you can ask for a cup of rich Swedish coffee while you wait for your order to be packed. With any luck, you may get some kringle to sample as well.

Nearly every week, a truck pulls up in front of Geier's Sausage Kitchen on the South Trail and unloads box after box of breads from a little bakery in Canada called Rudolf's. Seeded and unseeded ryes, sourdough loaves, stone-oven breads, Swiss dough breads and the wildly popular "stitzwick" rolls made of a white and wheat flour mixture cause customers to queue up in the wee hours and call ahead for parry orders.

"We can sell 70 loaves of bread and 700 or more stitzwick in a single day in season," reports Jeff Chadwick, one of the bakers for Geier's. "People are really getting into their breads lately, just like in Europe."

Rudolf's sends their loaves par-baked and frozen, and Geier's bakers finish the job. The bread is put on shelves immediately so that it tastes fresh. Customers say that the rye and sourdough loaves are reminiscent of the fresh breads their mothers and grandmothers baked in ovens at home long ago. The bread is wonderfully flavorful, with chewy exteriors and tender textures within. While waiting for your bread order, shop Geier's European-styled inventory, featuring a bit of this, a little of that. The market is a combination grocery store, butcher shop, delicatessen and bakery. Linger as long as you like, but orders are strictly take-out.

Paul Mattison knows on which side his bread is buttered. His brainchild, The Sarasota Bread Company in Southgate Mall, delivers unusual and delicious breads to loyal customers, who can also enjoy lunch, dinner or a refreshing shopping break at this upscale eatery. Different breads are featured daily, with staples such as whole-wheat country breads, Italian and French breads almost always available. Specialty loaves, like the luscious chocolate and dried cherry bread, are only baked on Saturdays. This one qualifies as dessert, and is served in thick dark slices loaded with sweet bits of fruit. Another very popular bread is the semolina raisin. This loaf is big and round and yellow, with plump raisins dotted throughout a finely textured and flavorful dough. Spinach, onion, apricots, walnuts and any other tasty ingredients may find their way into the Sarasota Bread Company's dough bowls. Special orders for holiday parties can be arranged.

Casa Italia satisfies its clientele with a nice selection of fresh breads available Tuesday through Saturday. All loaves are baked elsewhere and delivered very early to the Sarasota store, so customers are buying fresh bread that has never been frozen. Long Italian loaves, large round country breads, semolina with seeds, fresh foccacia and baguettes come in various sizes for customer convenience. The Italian bread is soft, white and flavorful with a crackling crust and tender texture. The country bread is dense, rich and tastes of wheat and multi-grain. Serve this in thick slices with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, basil and goat cheese.

Caf[acute{e}] Berlin in Bradenton Beach offers authentic German breads; top sellers are the dark rye and a coarse, thickly seeded multi-grain loaf. The Warm Mineral Springs Snack Bar and Bakery in Venice bakes its rich rye breads, dark wheats, challah and poppyseed loaves early each morning and sells out before lunch. Flower's Bakery in Bradenton features more than 30 different breads, including banana pecan loaves, pumpkin bread and the lightest, freshest sourdough east of San Francisco.

Newcomer Pasiano's is winning a reputation for traditional Italian bread, with customers lining up at the juncture of Clark and Stickney Point roads for their orders. Husband-and-wife owners David and Laurie Moretti do the baking together, eschewing sugar, fat, cholesterol and MSG, and using a centuries-old recipe of flour, yeast and salt. "This bread is a throwback to what 80- and 90-year-old customers remember eating as children," says David. "We still split our crusts with a blade because this is how you determine whether a loaf will have a soft or hard crust, and we truly believe that a great loaf of bread can only be baked by one who loves the work. If the baker is in a bad mood, it will show. The bread will suffer."

Winn-Dixie stores all bake their own bread on the premises and offer fresh, warm loaves for sale in the bakery section. Customers clamor for peasant bread, French loaves and Italian bread; and all taste delicious, even though they are mass-produced. The whole-wheat bread is probably the best, though, with a nutty taste, thick crust and texture that can stand up to a mile-high sandwich.

Publix also features a huge selection of breads, from breakfast loaves to seeded ryes. Most of the larger stores bake their own bread on premises, and customers are treated to samples at the bakery counter. Popular stand-by breads include white and multi-grain loaves, French and Italian breads with sesame or poppy seeds and sourdough. New favorites include brown bread with currants, country loaf with sun-dried tomatoes and White Mountain bread, which comes in a plump round with flour dusted across the top. Many stores are also offering Cuban bread, an intoxicating treat when heated in the oven and spread with real butter. These breads all have good flavor and interesting texture but they are best eaten within the day, as many do not retain freshness.

BEST BREAD BASKETS

Favorite breads can determine dinner reservations for those who really love the loaf. An informal sampling of Sarasotans who dine around revealed these top five choices for breads served at restaurants. None of the establishments would reveal their recipes but all were happy to keep the baskets brimming and the butter pats coming.

Chart House: The squaw bread is dark, rich, coarsely textured and somehow a bit sweet on the tongue, with honey as a possible ingredient. Squaw bread is served sliced and warm and it melts in your mouth.

Cafe Baci: Once you dip your square of foccacia bread into extra-virgin olive oil and take a bite, you will never be the same. Chewy and soft, this bread is topped with slender rings of cooked onion and has an incredible salty, garlicky, onion essence that drives diners crazy. Forget the meal, just bring more bread, please.

Columbia: The serving of bread here is something of a ritual. Waiters whistle as they present your Cuban loaf in its precious little paper twist. Butter pats are solemnly distributed, and then it begins. You break your bread, and the crisp crust shatters into a thousand crumbs across the tablecloth. The butter hits the bread and the bread hits your mouth with that unmistakable flavor and texture of fresh white interior and golden brown crunch. Eat all you want with no worries. Another waiter will painstakingly sweep away the crumbs before dessert and smile as he does so.

Mediterraneo: A plate of pasta, green salad and the perfect Italian bread to accompany are found here. Simple and delicious, the loaves are slender and long and cut on an angle to offer the right ratio of soft interior to crusty exterior. Olive oil is the seasoning of choice, and a dash of salt in the oil makes it even better. Customers are also encouraged to use their sliced bread to push stubborn capers or scallions onto their twirling spoon and to soak up that last spoonful of marinara sauce in the bowl. The garlic bread is good here, too, and soft, white rolls are offered on occasion with a delicious flavor and nice chewy crust.

Michael's On East: The bread is good here but the presentation is what makes it special. A basket arrives at the table looking a little like a satellite, with elongated shapes and slender objects sticking out in every direction. Crunchy breadsticks, fresh flatbreads with cracked pepper, salted crackers and Indian papadoms--round, flat lentil circlets quick-fried with a hint of garlic-are the "what's-that" portion of the program. Traditionalists will also be happy to find pannalettes, soft, white Italian bread loaves served warm and sized for individual enjoyment. Try some of each in this sampler of breads, you'll love them all.

Dud we miss your favorite local source for bread? Write Pam Daniel at SARASOTA, 601 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, FL 34236 or e-mail her at pdaniel@sarasotamagazine.com and we'll share your suggestions with readers in a future issue.
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Title Annotation:Sarasota, FL
Author:Collins, Mary Alice
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Words:2521
Previous Article:MAKE MINE OSTRICH.
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