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World expert on French bread shares tips on baguettes

In the crowded living room of the William Keeton House dean's apartment was a table full of French baguettes as Steven Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of European History and a world renowned expert on French culture and French bread, related how he became an authority on such fare and how to judge the goodness of breads.

Kaplan's guide for rating bread:

• Appearance: The slits on the top of the bread must be deep, and the bread must have a straight line. It should be burnt-sienna in color, and the crust must look "crusty." Kaplan says, "The appearance must seduce you."

• Crust: "Bread solicits all five of our senses." Kaplan wants to "hear the bread," as it emerges from the oven; "it 'sings' as it cools." He says it's a "wonderful melody."

• Crumb (the inner texture beneath the crust): Kaplan says, "You don't want a hyper white crumb," but it should be a pearly yellow or gray as well "responsive" and "fleshy."

• Mâche (the "mouth-feel"): How the crust and crumb feel in the mouth. It should "invite me to go further," Kaplan said.

The final two are what Kaplan refers to as the Regal. They make up the flavor:

• Aroma: Is the aroma intense? Simple or complex?

• Taste: Even for Kaplan taste is hard to "disentangle" from the aroma. He says he wants the "taste to persist" after the first bite. Kaplan said there are more than 200 volatile molecules that make up the taste of bread, many more than wine.

The Oct. 20 event was part of "Conversations@Keeton," a series of discussions with Cornell's "most interesting and influential." According to Keeton House Professor and Dean Jefferson Cowie, organizers sought Kaplan after seeing his 2007 interview with Conan O'Brien.

Kaplan, who also serves as a visiting professor of modern history at the Institut d'Éudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, said that while pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale in the 1960s, he lived in France studying the history of bread on French culture. To really understand bread, he said he needed to learn how to bake it, so he went to baking school and took a job working the night shift where he "learned from the best."

Later, while living in France again, he was asked to write a book on what makes a good bread. He was reluctant at first, he said, finding it uncomfortable being an American writing about bread quality, especially among the French and their "celebrated arrogance." His hardest task was to develop a system for rating bread, as "there was no protocol for bread tasting." The system he developed rates bread on a scale from 0-20, using a scorecard grading system found in French schools. He developed six criteria.

After explaining his system, Kaplan sliced a baguette and went through the rating process to show it's is done. Kaplan began by sticking his nose in "the crumb" to give it a good sniff: "It does not enchant me," he said. He continued examining facets of the bread, using all five senses to rate the loaf. Overall he gave it an 8.8 out of 20.

"Bread has bound us by the cords of necessity, and the cords of imagination," said Kaplan, explaining that through history we were bound to bread for its nutrition. Today we are "still bound to bread through our imaginations."

Kaplan is the author of 10 books, including "Cursed Bread: Back in France for Years Forgotten, 1945-1958" (2008); "Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It" (2006); and "Best Bread in the World: The Bakers of Paris in the 18th Century" (2004).

Grady Brimley is a graduate student and a writer for the Cornell Chronicle.

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