House of the Rising Bun

Kristine Heykants

Napoleon's French Bakery
1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul; 690-0178

Jeff Morrison's got colonies of wild creatures living in his refrigerator. When he goes out of town, he hires a critter-sitter to check in on them. These beasts in his crisper drawer don't need much supervision, just a little flour every few days, but if anything were to happen to them, and if--heaven forfend!--anything happened simultaneously to their brethren at Napoleon's French Bakery, well, Napoleon's bread would never be the same.

Napoleon's commissioned Morrison, a baker at the Uptown Wuollet Bakery, to revamp its bread line after the company wandered into a period of bland and uninspiring products, and he says his first order of business as a consultant was to develop a series of distinctive starters for the bread.

A brief digression is probably called for here: Starter, or "sour," is a form of yeast employed to make air pockets in dough, transforming what would be crackers into what would be bread. Whereas leavening agents such as baking powder (muffins, quick breads) make the gas through chemical action, yeast is a living organism, and it makes carbon dioxide when it eats, in sort of the same way that we make carbon dioxide when we breathe. While commercial yeast is made from organisms bred for their hardiness rather than any flavor characteristics, starter is created by luring wild yeasts out of the air. Because these one-celled creatures tend to vary from region to region, and because the only ingredients in traditional bread are flour, water, salt, and yeast, the flavor contributed by the yeast can be crucial.

For the first of Napoleon's starters, Morrison went to a co-op and invested in some locally grown organic apples and honey. After pureeing them, he strained out the solids and left the liquid mixture on top of his refrigerator with the windows open. Unfortunately, instead of souring and supporting a healthy yeast colony, the mixture simply spoiled. Morrison says it took him about four weeks and several batches, but eventually he developed a healthy colony of wild yeast, which he then used to develop Napoleon's pain au levain.

The result is perhaps Napoleon's greatest triumph on its road back from mediocrity. The pain au levain is a round bread with a formidably chewy golden-brown crust the color of oven-roasted potatoes, and when you rip into it you can just smell the apples and honey from which its wild yeast sprang. Robust and tangy, it's an athletic little bread, confident and hearty, and well worth Morrison's struggles.

Another round bread, Napoleon's white boule, is also a treasure, smelling slightly of almonds and boasting a milky interior and a resolute, chewy, apricot-gold crust. It's a great eating white: frothy, almost bubbly. Napoleon's has managed to marry real-bread maltiness to white bread's blank-slate openness without losing sight of why we all like white bread to begin with--for its delicacy and agreeableness. The seven-grain boule, a café au lait-color loaf with a rough crust and a dense, moist crumb, is the sort of bread-as-meal that does justice to the saying "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou." (Frankly, a couple of slices of this meaty bread and I could get through the night just fine with neither wine nor thou.)

Napoleon's has also just debuted a standard American sandwich loaf in honey-white and honey-wheat. These are good, unpolished, chewy loaves remarkable for their mahogany-colored crusts and dense, satisfying crumb. (The above-mentioned artisanal breads cost $2.20 for a 20-ounce loaf and $1.65 for a 10-ounce loaf; a one-pound sandwich loaf goes for $1.75.)

JoAnna Zachman, a baker fresh from a stint making cakes in New York City for gourmet powerhouses like Dean & DeLuca, was hired to manage Napoleon's in the last weeks of 1996, and it is her stewardship that has been responsible for stopping the quality free-fall that resulted in the closing of three Napoleon's in the mid-'90s (there's still another Napoleon's in Bloomington), introducing the artisanal breads as well as a selection of ready-made sandwiches and spreads, and hiring a dependable staff to maintain consistent quality at the ovens and behind the counter.

Still, several aspects of Napoleon's production linger unrehabilitated. Some of the pastries are very good--the croissants in particular are rolled out by hand every morning and allowed to rise all day, and they end up airy and toothsome, well worth their $1.10 price tag. But other offerings still bear telltale signs of commercial shortcuts--the apple-filled Danish ($1.35), for example, has a canned-tasting filling. (I think I speak for all Americans when I say that if I'm going to get involved with all the calories of a Danish, it better floor me.) And baguettes ($1.54 a pop, with a wider "double baguette" running $2.09) are pale, uniformly fluffy, thin-crusted disappointments, no better than what you find at most grocery stores.

Also, I wish Napoleon's wasn't so quick to put its products in plastic bags: Every hour spent in a plastic bag reduces the crispness of a bread's crust and works to more evenly distribute moisture throughout the loaf. It seems counterproductive to spend so much time perfecting a bread and then to ensure that it loses one of its best qualities.

Ruben Mark Lopez, Napoleon's new head baker, showed me around the bakery early one morning so I could see all the effort that goes into making an artisanal loaf of bread. The "proofing boxes," for instance: closet-size containers in which bread is allowed to rise in warm, humid conditions. It's during this proofing process that bread develops its airiness and complex character. Whereas many commercial bakeries proof bread briefly or not at all, some of Napoleon's breads proof for seven hours. "Bakeries are traditionally relaxed places," Lopez observes. "Baking is very much an art, and just like an artist wouldn't rush a sculpture, a baker who knows what he's doing doesn't rush the bread, or the people he works with."

As impressed as I was with the commercial ovens (massive enough to be featured in a prominent scene in a horror movie), what I really took away from the tour was a greater understanding of the many obstacles that impede the baking of good bread in America today. Sure, Jeff Morrison had told me how hard it is to find workers. ("In Europe there's a baker on literally every corner baking for their community, and in European culture baking is considered a reasonably glamorous job," he says. "But here most people think the only good job is one in an office making great deals of money.") It was another thing entirely to see that so many of the bakery's employees were students from nearby colleges, as well as other workers drawn by the strange hours (many bakers work from about midnight until the morning rush hour) or because the job allowed them to forgo day care for their young children, or because as immigrants the language barrier ruled out other jobs.

I would have imagined that commodification would have been the central obstacle that precludes getting good bread in the U.S. (After World War I, bread was transformed from a locally produced, idiosyncratic product to a uniform, centrally distributed commodity as interchangeable nationally as a bag of sugar or rice.) I would have thought that a neighborhood bakery's biggest hurdle would be a consumer's expectation that bread be something cheap and readily available in the grocery store. What I saw at Napoleon's was that a practical matter--finding actual bakers who could excel at the craft--was closer to the heart of the issue.

Which makes efforts such as the one Zachman is spearheading at Napoleon's all the more impressive. When I asked her why she has devoted the past year and a half to the world of bread and cupcakes, she told me, "For the purity of it. I like the mom-and-popness of it: If we're making tarts, we're making the tart shells ourselves--actually pressing the tart dough into the shells and baking them off, whereas a lot of bakeries just buy their shells commercially."

Zachman points out that after this spring's storms knocked out Napoleon's power for a week, some customers dropped by every single day for updates on when the bakery would get back on its feet. "We have people that come here year after year after year, we've seen their kids year after year, we get to know them year after year, and they get to know us," she says. "The baking itself is a nightly challenge--night after night you might have a beautiful bake or a crazy bake, but I like going through it because this is intimate, this is hands-on. And I'm passionate about the place itself and how it changes. I want to keep the energy coming in and the change coming in.

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