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MARKETS : Three Hot Bakers

June 08, 1995|LINDA BURUM

The revival of a well-crafted loaf can be credited to a handful of American bakers, whose small-scale production of artisanal bread is the sort that once thrived everywhere in Europe. Their fragrant loaves--rich dark ryes, crackly crusted baguettes and mellow sourdoughs--are the sort that made us once revere bread as the "staff of life."

It's been more than six years since Nancy Silverton opened La Brea Bakery and sparked the excitement for sourdough bread in this city. These days, she isn't alone. I tracked down three Southern California sourdough bakers, each with a style as unique as the baker's own signature. And yet their breads have one thing in common: They are shaped by hand and leavened by an ancient method based on slow-fermenting natural yeast starters in place of faster-acting commercial yeast.

This slow leavening process develops character in the breads. The results are deeper, more complex nutty flavors, a moist crumb with a springier texture, and hearty crusts that keep the loaves fresh without refrigeration (and without using freshness-protecting additives).

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I kept hearing about the fabulous bread you could buy at the Hollywood Farmers Market. "It's amazing stuff--one guy bakes about a dozen kinds himself," said a fan who brought me the green olive bread with walnuts and the garlic-chive bread with baked garlic. The loaves were impressive, with sturdy, beautifully blistered crusts and a distinctive, cheese-like tang.

As it happens, the baker, Jack Bezjian, is also the proprietor of Bezjian's, a well-known East Hollywood Armenian market. When I call, he invites me to watch him at work, and I arrive long before the doors open for business.

An assistant lets me in. I make my way past shelves crowded with exotic-looking jars, stacks of heavy bags filled with rice and several long deli cases, then through a narrow passageway to a cluttered bakery area.

Curiously, the huge tunnel oven that dominates the room sits cold and unused alongside an enormous (and also unused) mechanical dough divider and loaf shaper. All around are vats and jars filled with mysterious-looking bubbling batters. "I'm over here," says a voice coming from behind a multi-tiered rack stacked with variously shaped unbaked loaves.

From behind the rack steps Bezjian, an electric carving knife in his hand. He waves me over and proceeds to slash into the loaves, giving them different markings. Among the thicket of equipment, only a single large rack oven is heating up as Bezjian readies the hand-shaped loaves.

"I've been baking for 30 years," he tells me, intent on his work. "We used to make our own pita bread here [pointing to the unused equipment], and I started my experiments to see if I could make a better-tasting pita. We quit doing that because there was too much competition from the commercial pita bakeries. Then I got interested in baking this kind of bread."

Bezjian says he's tried all sorts of yeast cultures. The one he uses most often now has the special balance of natural yeast and lactobacillus he favors. He lets the dough ferment for several days, allowing it to rise very slowly in a cool environment, rather like aging wine. This, he says, develops the best taste because all the flavor-producing enzymes and yeast byproducts have time to permeate the dough. You can't leaven ordinary straight dough like this because it just dies after a few days in the retarder.

He continues to expound on the minutiae of yeast fermentation, like a talking textbook of leavening science, working his way through the beneficial synergism of lactobacillus and yeast. Good water, he says, pointing to his reverse osmosis purifier, is very important, because the chemicals in tap water can suppress yeast growth.

But artisanal bread baking is not scientific. "Making this bread is trial and error every day," Bezjian says. "Like other living things, the dough has its idiosyncrasies, and these change daily. You can't just knead for a certain amount of minutes. You have to feel the dough to know when it's mixed enough, when it's kneaded enough and has risen enough [he pokes at a loaf]. The humidity of the flour, the air and even added ingredients can change things."

Everything you add to the dough makes it react differently, he says. "I was using white onions in the zucchini bread and it didn't work at all. And watercress--the yeast doesn't like it and won't rise if you add it to the dough too early."

It's not surprising Bezjian has such a fascination with the scientific aspects of bread baking--he studied engineering for five years. But instead of pursuing that career he remained in the family-owned store doing the baking.

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