When I was growing up, we ate dinner precisely at 5 o’clock every weeknight. My father sat at one end of the table, my mother sat at the other end, and the five children sat along either side. At my father’s end of the table, to the right of his plate, was a loaf of white bread, still in its plastic wrapper. Beside the bread, there was a stick of margarine. During the course of the meal, he usually ate something like three pieces of bread.
Most often, we children had already had our daily white-bread allotment, either in lunchtime sandwiches or at breakfast as cinnamon toast. On the nights when my mother served spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, she heated up a loaf of Italian bread from the grocery. The only bakery I can recall visiting was the one in downtown Media, Del., where we could buy cakes and pastries. Then there was the Sunshine Bakery day-old bread store where we stocked up on white bread and occasionally, for a treat, got a loaf of raisin bread drizzled with sweet white frosting.
I don’t think our bread-eating habits were uncommon for middle-class neighborhoods in the 1960s. Looking back, I know it was most likely economics, and not personal taste, that put white bread in our breadbox. At that time we were probably going though more than a loaf a day, and my mother was pinching pennies wherever she could. Very rarely, she and my father would treat themselves to a loaf of special breadmy father, with a German mother, loved dark pumpernickel; my mother, whose father was Swedish, craved a good Swedish rye or caraway. They would hoard these breads, putting them in the freezer and taking out two slices at a time for a special sandwich to accompany the beers they enjoyed after the children had gone to bed.
I discovered bagels and challah at my friend Andrea Hoffman’s house when I was in elementary school. And that was about the extent of my bread repertoire until I was in my mid-20s and began sampling Indian restaurants with their fabulous naan, Mexican restaurants with their homemade tortillas, and French restaurants with their crusty baguettes.
From then on, it was an easy slide into a bread addiction. In my kitchen and my freezer at this moment, there are no less than a dozen varieties of bread and rollsincluding, I am ashamed to say, a loaf of Iron Kids white bread for which my children have an inexplicable attraction. Since my children prefer the evil white bread and Mr. Wonderful doesn’t really share my obsession with the finer loaves, I am the one who indulges in good bread. My passion could be hazardous to the waistline, and I must be constantly vigilant about my bread intake. Let them eat cake, I say. Just don’t touch my sourdough.
My favorite outings are to bread stores. At least my children share my excitement in this one eccentricity. Our idea of a fun afternoon includes an hour at Imagination Crossroads, followed by a stroll over to Great Harvest to pick up one of their generous samples.
It was indeed a happy day for me when Bread & Co. opened its Green Hills store, as the Page Road location was pretty much out of the way for me, except when I was planning a special occasion.
And now, with the opening of Provence in Hillsboro Village, just within walking distance of my home, I have reached nirvana. The bakery and cafe is the most splendid sort of addition to the burgeoning Village that I could imagine. For several months, neighborhood residents closely followed the renovation of the old House of Bamboo, and more than once I peeked through the clouds of dust and grime to inquire about how things were moving along. Owners Terry Carr-Hall and Brent Polk had hoped to open by March 1, but that date came and went and still the store was in the throes of construction.
Then, one sunny morning while I was driving home down 21st Avenue, I saw a light shining inside. There were shelves stacked with bread, and a customer was opening the front door, a bag tucked under her arm. I screeched to a halt in the middle of the street.
On March 27 Provence Breads & Cafe opened for business. It was immediately apparent that I haven’t been the only one awaiting the day as if it were Elvis’ resurrection. Open seven days a week, the store has hardly had time to catch its breath, what with its steady stream of customers. If these other customers’ Provence experiences have been anything like mine, their anticipation, for a change, did not exceed the reality.
The first reason for marveling is the space itself, which evokes, as I am sure it was meant to, a storybook image of what a bakery in France would look like. Architect Allen Collins uncovered high ceilings and created arched doorways to connect the two interior spaces. Big windows allow for window shopping from the outside, people watching from within. Designer Tony Brown bathed the walls in warm, sunny shades of yellow, gold and terracotta to enhance the burnished wood shelves and rough brick columns. The gleaming oven, shipped here from France, is visible through interior windows. It’s much fun to watch the breads being pulled out.
Terry Carr-Hall is as clearly obsessed with making bread as I am with eating it. He spent six weeks in France last summer at Ecole de Boulangerie in Aurillac, scraping up every crumb of information he could from a region steeped in centuries of bread-making tradition. Once the store was open, he spent weeks trying to perfect a baguette, which, according to Terry, must “shatter” upon breaking but still maintain a light, soft and airy interior. It was the flour that stymied him, but his intense searching has finally yielded what the French apparently take for grantedthe perfect flour for perfect baguettes.
Confronting the shelves of bread at Provence can be a bit intimidating, to say the least. On any given day, there are nearly 20 varieties, from buttermilk currant to sourdough wheat batard, from country French to one of my favorites, the Italian Tuscan. Bryan Diller, the affable general manager, will gladly assist in your selection of a breakfast bread, or the right loaf for a sandwich or for dinner. Samples, much to my children’s delight, are always available.
Breakfast favorites so far have been the buttermilk currant, which has a touch of organic honey; the dense, nutty muesli; the wheat raisin walnut, and the wheat apricot hazelnut.
Sourdough breads are popular for all occasions and are one of Provence’s best sellers. Pain au levain adapts well to sandwich making. For dinner parties, La couronne, in the shape of a crown, is easy to break apart when it is passed around the table. The fougasse is also pretty. The olive and the cumin wheat are distinctive and memorable, but I am particularly fond of the semolina with fennel and golden raisins.
Still, there is more to Provence than bread. Carr-Hall and Diller have been taken aback by the bustling lunch business, stretching between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. It should come as no surprise that word has gotten out to the nearby medical and university community, and now even Music Row, about Provence’s delectable sandwiches, salads and soups, all cooked according to Polk’s recipes.
Six sandwiches are offered daily, and it’s hard to recommend one without slighting another. Our group of four especially liked the curried chicken salad and the turkey and provolone. But we also loved the delicately smoked ham and the lean roast beef with Vermont cheddar and horseradish mustard. I was partial to the vegetarian Montecitoavocado, tomato, sprouts, red onion, capers and cheddar.
Don’t neglect the Tuscan bean soup, heady with rosemary and chock-full of cannellini beans. And just close your eyes and point to a saladyou can’t lose, given the choices of pesto pasta with asparagus, orzo with fruit and vegetables (my personal favorite), and roasted vegetables.
By all means, leave room for one of the delectable pastries or cakes made by Sally Johnson and Kelly Stapleton. The strong, rich coffee, from Batdorf & Bronson in Seattle, is out of this world and makes you wonder why you ever thought flavored coffee was a good idea.
The shelves and the retail case offer delicacies like artisan cheeses made in the U.S.A., marinated olives, patés, boxes of flageolets from Dean & DeLuca in New York, artichoke tapenade and onion confit with raisins. The sight is quite irresistible.
The loveliest thing about Provence is the atmospheresophisticated, yet unpretentious; relaxed, yet elegant; soothing, yet stimulating to the senses. When I drop by for a loaf with my children, who are invariably racing about the store, I stare with envy at the women relaxing at the small tables, enjoying a bowl of soup and a slice of bread, reading a magazine or a book. Of course, I realize that in about 15 years, when I am one of those women, I will stare with envy at the mothers holding the hands of young children experiencing their first bites of buttermilk currant bread.
But that’s a long way off. For now, I can hardly wait until my parents come for their next visit so that I can introduce them to Provence. My mother will be astonished at the price I’ll pay for a loaf of bread. But hey, Mom, I’m not only worth it, I’ve earned it. And so have you.
Provence, 1705 21st Ave. S. (383-0363), is open 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Visa, MasterCard and Discovery accepted. No smoking. Parking is available behind the store and on the street.