Metropolitan Bakery first came into my consciousness several years ago. I was in Philadelphia to attend an academic conference and stopped by Reading Terminal Market on my way to the Marriott. Wanting to treat myself, I chose a raspberry filled brioche roll. Perfection–the brioche was eggy, almost like eating french toast, with a tart/sweet raspberry filling and a dusting of powdered sugar. That roll was without question the highlight of that day. I can still taste it.
Bread is a funny thing. Consuming bread has been an essentially human activity for thousands of years. Calorie dense, portable and long-lasting, bread made migration possible. At the same time, bread is a symbol of class difference. That brioche I ate–which probably cost a dollar–is an artifact of the widening gulf between classes in the modern era caused, in part, by technological improvements (the invention of the steel roller mill, for example) that allowed wheat to be ground fine and soft enough to make pure white flour possible. When Marie Antoinette supposedly said “let them eat cake,” she really said brioche, an item that was as above the means of her starving countrypeople who subsisted on heavy, dark loaves, as a new chateau. While bread is a staple, what kind of bread and how often it’s eaten has always been about social status. Food historian Hasia Diner writes that in Italy poor people baked bread once a year. Once it became hard, they would soak it to make it edible again.
Standing in front of the shelves lined with round loaves, baguettes, ovals at the Metropolitan Bakery, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by this historical reversal. Downy white brioche nestles near meaty multigrain or ancient spelt, risen in the old-fashioned style in a banneton, giving it the recognizable flour pattern on top. All of it is delicious, with a delicate, lingering, slightly sour flavor imparted by using wild yeast and unhurried rising. Old techniques married to our contemporary desire to have everything available immediately. Looking at that wall of choices I’m compelled to think about how a cultural history of bread tells us almost everything we would want to know to understand a society. Bread as the symbol of zeitgeist?
Recommended: Really, everything, but the brioche buns, sourdough fennel pretzels and french berry rolls are particularly unique.