Babying the Baguette
There's a new entry in the city's boutique-bread derby: It's an authentic baguette from the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Co.

"It's our first true baguette," says Mary Gassen, who owns the bakery with her husband, Michael. "When we first opened two years ago, we offered a baguette made from our crusty white bread dough. But it wasn't good so we stopped selling it."

The new baguette (available for $1.50 at the store only) uses the recipe of the Bakers Guild of America Team U.S.A., which won the 1996 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. No baguette recipe is complicated: The bread contains only flour, water, salt, and yeast. But the Gassens have tweaked their version with a bit of rye starter, "which adds another dimension of flavor," Mary says.

Because of the high moisture content of the dough, good baguettes tend to be wonderful for about 12 hours. Then "they dry out fast," Mary says. The Gassens are aiming their baguette largely at people who are walking home after work and want a good loaf of bread with dinner. For that reason, the baguettes (unlike many other items in the shop) aren't available before 11 a.m.

Although baguettes are highly perishable, the bakery has chosen to "err on the side of not running out," Mary says. Many bakeries fear the cost of maintaining a potential oversupply, she says, but she would rather make sure that evening customers can find what they want, even if it means a bit of waste. Bread left over at the evening close, she says, is donated to Food Runners, so it's not really wasted.

So far the loaves, which went on sale March 1, are selling well, Mary says. "Of course, a plain baguette is not a hard sell, and our customers had been asking for one."

The bakery might sell as many as 50 baguettes on Saturday, 25 on other days of the week. If that sounds like a relatively small number, it's because the Gassens are committed to what Mary calls "artisanal neighborhood baking." But the bakery may be starting to reach a wider city audience.

"We're becoming both a neighborhood and a destination bakery," Mary says. "We're getting people from other parts of town, who've seen us at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday mornings."

Will the success of a simple baguette bring a hard choice to its neighborhood artisans? Mary Gassen already describes herself as "a baguette widow" because Michael has been working seven days a week "babying the baguettes" to make sure they turn out beautifully. So far so good: No less a food sage than Jeremiah Tower loves them. But is he willing to help out in the bakery?

By Paul Reidinger

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