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Betsy Block

Boston Globe

Loaves to Love

If I presented my friend Jon with a plateful of bread and called it dinner, he might just plant a big, joyous kiss of gratitude on my cheek.

That's because most of his other friends serve him balanced meals when they invite him over. That means he must eat non-bread food, which he basically sees as a necessary evil.

Jon might be a little extreme in his devotion, but there's no doubt my buddy is onto something: Bread has been a staple of European, West Asian and Near Eastern diets for centuries. Staff of life and all.

To add to their allure, certain breads have religious, cultural or seasonal significance; one bite of a sweet challah or freshly-made corn tortilla can transport an expatriate home or a foreigner to a new land within seconds. And what an affordable trip it is -- Swedish cardamom bread, at $5.50, is the most expensive loaf I tried; Portuguese corn bread is only $1.70.

What follows is a list of breads representing some of Boston's many cultures. Because this is a magazine article and not a book, this list is only a sampling of what's out there. We couldn't possibly fit in all the different kinds of bread available here, nor mention all the worthy bakeries.

In other words, lots of folks reading this are bound to experience feelings ranging from slight curiosity ("I wonder why she didn't include naan?") to extreme irritation ("I can't believe she didn't include Boston brown bread!!!!").

Even my husband raised an eyebrow at me because I didn't include pumpernickel and rye, his two favorites. Et tu, my love?

Cheryl Ann's of Brookline
You'd never guess, driving up to this humble little bakery in a decidedly uncharming strip mall, that they bake some of Boston's best challah here. Nor would you guess that the owners of this kosher bakery are not Jewish. But then life is full of surprises, isn't it?

I had heard about Cheryl Ann's (named for co-owners Cheryl and Ann Moore) from a friend who travels almost an hour to buy 10 loaves at a time so she can stock her freezer. She's not the only one who raves about the challah here, so off I go to the farthest reaches of Brookline. About half the bakery is given over to challah -- square, round, braided, large, small, with raisins and without.

The braided loaf I buy, with its bubbles on top and slightly uneven shape, looks even more "homemade" than my own. Back in my car, I try a hunk. It's soft and sweet, cakey and eggy. Hmm, I think I'll have another little taste.

By the time I've broken off my third piece, I'm no longer assessing the flavor and texture -- I'm a fan.

"Challah" means "the priest's share." It traditionally referred to a portion of dough that was offered to the village priest by Jewish women as a dedication to God. Later, when there was no longer a Jewish priesthood, the dough would be put in the oven and burned as a symbolic offering while the challah baked. Loaves of rich, braided challah, made with eggs and white flour and usually glazed with egg wash, are served at the Sabbath meal on Fridays.

Ann Moore says they bake about 1,000 loaves on Fridays, and that the line snakes out the door. It's available every day, though, so you can stock up any day of the week.

Probably for the same reason that Chinese food tastes better eaten with chopsticks, this challah tastes best broken off into cloud-like pieces rather than sliced.

Greenhill's Traditional Irish Bakery
An Irish woman, an acquaintance of a friend, says that the Irish bread at Greenhill's tastes "just like home." That's no surprise since Dermot Quinn, who owns the bakery with his wife, Cynthia, got the recipe from his granny (as he refers to her) a few months before she died in 1990. Quinn started making his granny's bread to keep the tradition and her memory alive. Of course, first he had to wend his way through her charming, if inexact, directions, which quantified ingredients in terms of "handfuls" of flour, "pinches" of salt and soda, and "enough buttermilk to wet the dough."

He figured it all out eventually, and the result is a sweetish, slightly crumbly (as it should be) loaf studded with raisins. I popped a slice into the toaster oven for a light browning, then spread on a thin layer of lemon curd. I don't know if Quinn's grandmother would think this is a kosher (so to speak) treatment of her bread, but wow, was it good. The one thing Quinn's bread doesn't have is caraway seeds, which Quinn says aren't a tradition in Ireland.

Explaining the bread's origin, Quinn says that at one time fresh yeast was banned in Ireland to thwart the illegal making of the potato liquor "poteen." Soda, however, was easy to come by.

Whether or not the poteen story is true, yeast was indeed scarce in Ireland, soda did become a staple, and many people in Ireland had their own favorite recipe.

Quinn's grandmother must have had one of the best, though; as Quinn recalls, "Everybody came to our house" because they knew that "a cup of tea was at hand" along with a slice of that now-famous soda bread. Caraway-free, of course.

When my four-year-old son and I walk into Quebrada in Arlington early on a Friday afternoon, only two loaves of Adelle's Swedish cardamom bread remain on the counter. I'm glad I reserved mine in advance. I hold the bag with our loaf in front of my son and tell him to smell. He does, then looks up at me, eyes wide and a smile stretching across his face. A man standing in the bakery laughs and says, "Aromatherapy. That'll put you in a good mood." He's right, it is aromatherapy, and of the very best kind -- edible.

To me, there's something addictive about cardamom, a deeply fragrant member of the ginger family. When mixed with sugar and milk into a butter-rich dough, it makes for a bread that is perhaps one of the world's most perfect comfort foods. Use it to make luscious French toast or regular toast, or just rip a piece off and eat it plain, if anything about this bread can be called plain.

Owner Kay Wiggins says Quebrada has baked cardamom bread every Friday for more than 20 years. The recipe came from Adelle, the grandmother of a former employee's husband (if you can follow that). "It's an old-fashioned recipe that, as breads go, is one of the more labor-intensive," says Wiggins. The milk must be warmed before the spice is added. "Heating the milk sends the flavor deep into the soul of the bread," she says with a laugh.

While Quebrada makes it year-round,, cardamom bread is particularly popular on December 13, St. Lucia Day in Sweden. Legend has it that 1,500 years ago, a girl named Lucia brought food to the poor, wearing candles on her head to light her way. She became a saint, goes the story, after she was put to death for refusing to renounce Christianity.

On her day, the oldest girls in Swedish families dress up in white gowns with red sashes and bring coffee and treats to hospitals, schools and neighbors. Cardamom breads and cakes are among the offerings.

Japonaise Bakery
Japonaise may be a French/Japanese bakery, but here's where you can get the ne plus ultra of American white bread. Shoku pan means "white bread" in Japanese. It comes plain or with cream added. The cream shoku pan is just a touch sweeter and richer; think Wonderbread that hit the lottery. Compared to its poorer cousin, the cream version is more perfectly square, softer, and has a finer crumb. Shoku pan even flattens out when you press it down (though it springs back more that you-know-what). I didn't try rolling it into tiny bread spitballs the way I used to when I was little, but I'm sure if they did, they would shoot even farther than those made with Wonderbread.

Hiroko Sakan has owned Japonaise for a decade with her partner, baker Yoshi Inada. She herself invokes the Wonderbread comparison when talking about her bread. Hers, of course, lacks the preservatives and what she desribes as "a bad smell when you open the bag." No need to worry about the smell of cream shoku pan, which is fresh, sweet and enticing.

Not suprisingly, bread-making in Japan is not so ancient. Rice is this country's tradtional staple. Portuguese missionaries introduced bread to Japan four centuries ago, but this foreign use of grains didn't catch on until the late 1800s.

I don't fancy myself a white bread kind of woman, so I wasn't expecting much from shoku pan. But after a first bite, I decided to have a little bit more. "Just one tiny piece" quickly turned into two and a half slices.

Sakan says what distinguishes her bakery's white bread from others is the technique used when baking, "and love." Who am I to argue? It was either love or the devil that made me gorge myself on white bread one night. Either way, I didn't regret it.

Sakan says shoku pan is eaten in Japan as a breakfast bread (it makes divine toast), a snack (since it's light), and for sandwiches. If you like white bread, then cream shoku pan might be what you've been looking for. If you don't like white bread, you might just find yourself sneaking a slice in between your fancy, chewy, trendy sourdough baguettes.

Central Bakery
You think you know cornbread, but have you tasted Portuguese broa de milho? It's not the baking-powder based, sweet, crumbly, cake-like bread many of us are used to. While on the outside this lightly-floured loaf looks like any old sourdough bread, pick it up and you'll feel that it's got a whole lot more heft to it than its purely wheat flour-based cousins. It's downright heavy. It has a dense, chewy texture and tastes slightly of corn. This popular Portuguese bread is often eaten in its homeland with sardines, salt cod or other fish.

It's no wonder that the folks at Central Bakery are a little less than forthcoming when it comes to their broa. "You wouldn't believe how many people have tried to get certain things out of us," says Mike Vital, one of the owners, when I start asking how it's made. But I'm not a spy, I tell him, just a hungry bread-lover.

No go. Mum's the word on the recipe, other than that it's a combination of wheat and corn flour (he won't even say whether it's yellow or white, but it looks like white), and that it's "pretty simple, with basic ingredients." All he will say with certainty is that Central Bekery has been making cornbread since it was founded in 1917, and that the original recipe was brought over from Portugal.

He can also attest to the fact that the recipe has changed over the years. "It used to be airier, fluffier, with more wheat flour and less corn." Slice it thin and use it to sop up savory sauces. Or better yet, grill a few fresh sardines over an open fire, pour a glass of refreshing vinho verde, slice a loaf of broa de milho, and pretend you're in the Azores.

Maria and Ricardo's Tortilla Factory
According to the Tortilla Industry Association (yes, it's real), tortillas date back 12,000 years. Mayan legend has it that a peasant invented them for his ravenous king. The king may no longer be hungry, but food lovers still benefit from his appetite.

The native name for these flatbreads made of corn was tlaxcalli; when the Spanish arrived in the New World in the late 15th century, they changed it to tortilla. Thre freshest, corniest, most fragrant tortillas in this city are turned out by Maria & Ricardo's.

Owner Heidi Hartung says that when the company was founded in 1986, it just made white corn tortillas. Now it also makes them from blue corn, wheat, and whole wheat, and offers flavored versions such as spinach and tomato. But if you're looking for a little taste of Mesoamerican history, go for the white corn. They're made the way they always have been: The corn is cooked in a lime solution, ground into a dough called masa, and then cut into rounds.

Only when the company moved to Quincy after 10 years in business did they automate production. Fortunately, the tortillas haven't suffered in the transition.

Hartung, originally from central Mexico, says the flour tortillas are by far the most popular, but she likes the white corn version best of all. "I grew up with them," she explains. I, however, didn't, and they're my favorite, too. These are tortillas with bite, heft, personality. And locally made? Almost too good to be true.

Sevan Bakery
My life got even more confusing than it usually is after I bought a package of Sevan's Turkish pita bread. No, make that pida bread, which most other people seem to spell pide, not to be confused with the Arabic pita or pitta bread. Got it?

Well, I didn't at first either. But then I learned that Turkish pide bread, while a flatbread (though it does, indeed, contain yeast), is not a pocket bread at all. This semi-puffy, slightly dry round is golden on top and sprinkled, at Sevan, with sesame seeds or black, fragrant nigella sativa seeds from Turkey. Those in the know lightly toast it and serve it with dinner. It's particularly popular in Turkey during the month of Ramadan, when it's eaten every night by most fasters.

In fact, that's why Boston got its own freshly made pida. When store co-owner Margaret Chavushian visited her home town of Istanbul about four years ago during Ramadan, she picked up some pida and brought it back to Boston for her husband, who co-owns Sevan's. "He said, 'No, this is not good bread,'" remembers Chavushian. "He said, 'I'm going to make it" and I said, 'No, you can't!'"

But despite the fact that he wasn't a baker, make it he did. The results speak for themselves. Some say that Sevan's pida is even better than what they can get back home in Turkey, and some people trek here from out of state to buy up to 50 packages at a time.

Supposedly, bakers from the Ottoman period in Turkey believed that after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam, the patron saint of bakers (who knew?), learned how to make bread from the archangel Gabriel.

Sevan's pida bread itself is so tasty that it could well be called sinfully delicious, thought I'm sure that's not what Gabriel had in mind for his already beleaguered student. Margaret recommends the version with the nigella sativa. Why? Because it's most authentic? Because it reminds her of home?

"Because I like it, that's why," she says, laughing. Apparently, a lot of other folks do, too.