A passion for bread recognizes no boundaries. Two decades ago, a boy in the Ivory Coast named Aboubacar Diomandé fell in love with baking bread. In Abidjan, capital of the former French colony, baguettes were the local staple. For anything more ambitious, like croissants, ingredients were imported and expensive, so bakeries stuck to baguettes.
Eager to learn more, Aboubacar, nicknamed Ben, traveled to first Paris and then Connecticut to work in bakeries. He returned to Paris to study at the prestigious Ecole Lenôtre, founded by the famous pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre. Next, Ben worked under Jacques Mahou, a ninth generation baker from the city of Tours, who became his mentor. Mahou recommended Ben to a friend of his, David Bouley, and for the past dozen years Ben has been manning the Bouley oven here in Tribeca.
This big, gas-fired oven is now housed in the Bouley Studio building at the corner of Duane Street and West Broadway.
Here, almost single-handedly, Ben turns out a remarkable variety of loaves—some of the best French bread in the city. Much of it goes next door to the Bouley restaurant, but luckily we can also buy it at the Studio's counter. A good time to visit is around 11:00 AM, when the breads still retain some heat from the oven.
Ben makes two kinds of baguettes, chestnut and regular. Aside from a slight difference in color, they seem to taste about the same. Forget the dry crust and flavorless, cotton candy crumb of most city baguettes. The Bouley baguette's crust crackles softly in your mouth; its crumb is not too dense and not too fluffy and has a faint but wonderful yeasty, funky aroma from the leavening. Forget cheese—the only topping this bread needs is a smear of good butter.
Another loaf worth noting is the superlative miche, with the big Bouley "B" carved onto its broad dome. When you take it home on the subway, its fine smell suffuses the air and induces involuntary salivation. The miche's crust is dark and crisp, its crumb dense, soft, and melt-in-your-mouth. Once you start eating it, you start believing that you can live on bread alone, if only you knew when to stop.
Beyond these essentials is an array of excellent, smaller loaves that also find their way onto the Bouley Studio's retail shelves. Many of these are specialties of Jacques Mahou's bakery in Tours, including the Auvergne and Lodeve breads, slices of which are served with entrees next door. For Bouley Restaurant bread baskets, Ben bakes three kinds of little loaves: flaxseed, rosemary, and apple-raisin (another Mahou recipe). Ben says that things would get ugly if the fine diners couldn't get the apple-raisin in their baskets. These are little round rolls with a slice of apple baked on top and a dozen or so juicy golden raisins inside. The crust is soft but slightly crunchy, while the crumb inside is moist and springy.
Like most bakers, Ben keeps crazy hours, starting at 11:30 at night and quitting around one in the afternoon, six days a week. He keeps all the recipes in his head and also manages to turn out croissants, apple turnovers, cinnamon buns, chocolate chip cookies, and so on. They could be good—but I've never been able to get beyond the bread.
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