We’re familiar with Sydney Smith’s definition of heaven: eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. For Benjamin Disraeli (ever the plagiarist), paradise was eating ortolans to the sound of soft music. For me, bliss is simpler: eating toasted walnut bread liberally spread with Normandy butter, in dead silence. But whose walnut bread is best for this sublime experience? Well, we blind tasted breads from eight artisan bakers, discovering one particularly heavenly loaf. The panel members were the Discerning Litigator (DL), the Gourmet Celeb (GC) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP).
There was a good deal of unanimity between the three on the critical attributes. First, the walnuts. In a couple of loaves they tasted stale. Clearly they were too old or had been stored badly allowing the fat in the nuts to oxidise. Quantity was another issue – some bakers were simply too mean to put in enough. Good walnuts may have skyrocketed in price in the past couple of years but come on, either put the right amount in or don’t bother. We lovers of a nut loaf will pay, particularly to avoid the irritating experience of looking for a walnut in a haystack. A third fault was the result of introducing the walnuts too early in the process so that they disintegrate into tiny fragments during the various kneadings. The exquisite pleasure of discovering the nut in the dough depends partly on its chewability. That’s how the best flavours are released in the mouth.
Next, the dough. At the moment, the most popular mix for walnut bread seems to be sourdough. This was probably the method used for fermentation when bread was first invented thousands of years ago. A small amount of the naturally fermenting sourdough is mixed with a wheat or rye flour, typically just 15 per cent or 20 per cent. And a portion of the sourdough is held back and “fed”, providing the batch for the following day. Thus some bakers have kept a sourdough “mother” going for more than 100 years. Our panel’s taste (and this is entirely personal) was for milder sourdoughs. We also preferred final flour mixes that produced denser, moister crumbs. We were less fond of the east European approach, which produces a more acidic, drier loaf with a tougher and springier texture.
Finally, the level of bake. Traditionally the French whack up the temperature for a thick crust. This is great on the day of purchase but a bit of a trial the day after. Having said that, sourdough does tend to give bread a longer life and French bakers came out well in the final reckoning. In fact, they provided both runners-up.
For those of you who prefer white bread, Paul is the answer. Its distinctive loaf has whole walnuts in it, which are introduced after all the kneading and proving, just before the final shaping. In cross section this is striking: “incredibly fresh nuts” (GP); “springy white crumb” (DL); “quite delicious” (GC). Second equal came Poilâne’s sourdough loaf. This 80-year-old Parisian bakery uses French walnuts (of course) and stone-ground wheat flour to produce a slightly darker bread: “well-balanced” (GP); “splendid aftertaste” (GC); “handsome” (DL).
Our clear winner, though, came from the inspirational bakery, De Gustibus. It was founded by Dan Schickentanz in his house in Abingdon in 1990. This man is a bread artist. His loaf combines white and rye flours with cracked wheat. He blends three sourdough mixes to get the right acidity and the ideal balance of lactic and acetic fermentations. And, with masterly attention to detail, he lightly toasts his walnuts to give them an extra kick: “moist, granary-style with half a walnut tree in it” (GC); “perfect flavours” (DL); “this is the one!” (GP). Buy and enjoy his bread.
£3.75 a loaf
Available at De Gustibus bakeries and a selection of other food retailers, www.degustibus.co.uk