Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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When Taylor Gourmet opened the first of its three Washington-area stores in November 2008, the advertising pitch was simple: The deli would sell Philadelphia-style sandwiches, named after Philadelphia streets, sandwiched between Philadelphia bread.

They meant it literally: Every morning, the deli’s owners explained, they would schlep rolls all the way down from Sarcone’s, a small neighborhood bakery in historically Italian South Philadelphia.

With deli meats from Italy, robust provolones, and a mix between traditional house-made fillings and modern sandwich-making twists, Taylor became a hit. Washingtonian penned a love letter to its crusty rolls and their fresh-baked aroma. The Washington Post called Taylor Gourmet a local favorite. Washington City Paper added it to a “50 Best Restaurants” list. Nearly every piece of hype mentioned the out-of-town rolls.

So when the time came to put together a story about the growing number of D.C.-area establishments that brag about bringing in bread baked in some distant oven, Taylor owner Casey Patten seemed like a natural person to call.

“The roll is like no other,” he told me. Sarcone’s deck ovens create a significant bottom crust, he said, offering a workout for your jaw—and a perfect home for dense, wet fillings like Patten’s saucy chicken cutlets or homemade meatballs drenched in marinara. Such conditions could reduce other rolls to a sopping, soggy mess.

During my first interview with Patten, he described in detail the bread transportation arrangements. According to Patten, 500 to 1,000 rolls make the trip down Interstate 95 every day. And when I asked about future expansion plans, he told me that if his arrangement with Sarcone’s ever fell through, he had a back-up Philadelphia bread supplier.

Despite claims on the menu, Taylor’s bread no longer comes from Sarcone’s bakery in Philly. (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

During a follow-up interview, Patten’s story changed significantly. I had pressed him for a ride on the bread-delivery van, to no avail. After several requests, Patten made a surprising admission: Taylor had stopped using Sarcone’s a few weeks earlier. He said capacity concerns forced him to switch to a Washington-area bakery as his business expanded. He declined to name his new supplier.

I followed up with a call to Louis Sarcone Jr., a fourth-generation baker and vice president of the bakery. He confirmed Taylor no longer uses his bread. He told me they actually stopped purchasing the rolls back in September. According to Sarcone, Patten cited transportation costs, tolls, and winter snowstorms in their decision to try another bakery. “They told me they’d try it out and if it didn’t work they’d come back.” He told me, adding, “They never did.”

Taylor never updated its website, either: As this story went to print, the site still claimed they used Sarcone’s rolls.

Among the people who never noticed: me. And I’m a food critic. I’ve eaten a boatload of Taylor’s subs over the last couple years. If I perceived a subtle difference in the crustiness of the rolls, it was only after I found out about the switch—hardly a double-blind taste test.

But the more interesting question was: Why did I care?

Sure, no one likes to be hoodwinked. But it’s not as if the deli had swapped in, say, USDA Select in place of Wagyu beef. In theory, the same ingredients combined in Washington could create the same loaf of bread. And yet Taylor, along with several other newcomers to the local dining scene, was pushing authenticity rather than simple taste when it bragged of sourcing its rolls a few hours to the north—a play on comfort, emotion and food memories.

It’s an appeal that seems to be working—at the cash register, if not in Taylor’s hired ovens.

Locavorism may sell books, but in D.C., long distances sell bread. The loaves with the longest journey from bakery to plate are probably the ones at Locolat Café, on Florida Avenue just north of U Street NW. The café sells exotic chocolates, savory waffles, and tiny, crusty French baguettes.

“French,” in this case, is not a redundancy: The loaves ship from the baking powerhouse Le Nôtre in France. Par-baked demi-loaves arrive frozen in boxes of 60 from a local distributor after a flight across the Atlantic.

Taylor Gourmet’s menu

Most of the loaves don’t even get finished in a stateside oven. Instead, the staff slices them lengthwise and adds meats, vegetables, and cheeses. The baguettes finish cooking on a sandwich press; a process that infuses the bread with the flavors of its fillings to create a compelling panini.

Owner Geert Piferoen claims he orders his baguettes all the way from France not just for the superior quality, but also for the price. According to Piferoen, nothing in the area comes close at a similar cost.

If it’s truly finance that drives his decision, Piferoen isn’t passing the savings along. A thin baguette just a few inches long costs $2.49. The loaves are so small it would take more than four at a cost of $10 to come close to the volume of the full sized baguettes offered at Whole Foods. The comparison is pointless, however; the loaves have very little in common other than shape.

Locolat’s baguettes boast a slightly blistered, crunchy exterior that left me covered in shards of browned crust after tearing into one on my couch. The rich, buttery flavor and chewy texture made my Whole Foods baguette taste like Wonder bread in comparison.

Piferoen may not brag about the source of his baguettes directly on his menus, but he doesn’t need to. Nearly every mention of his delicious sandwiches in local restaurant reviews publicize the bread’s lineage.

Locolat’s not alone in its attempts to market out-of-town loaves. Commercialized par-baking and expedited shipping make bread available anywhere willing customers are willing to pay the shipping costs.

Calvert Woodley Fine Wine and Spirits sells H&H bagels shipped from New York City. Brabo in Alexandria opened up by touting breads from Ecce Panis in New Jersey. Dino in Cleveland Park sources its bread from Tribeca Oven, which began life in Manhattan before relocating to New Jersey. Owner Dean Gold subscribes to the theory that New York’s water significantly contributes to the superiority of the region’s breads.

The hype stands in significant contrast to the era’s biggest food-buying trend: locavorism. Locolat’s baguettes float to town on gallons of jet fuel even as other pricey restaurants tout local ingredients, listing area farms, and even specific farmers, as the sources for meats and vegetables on menus. So why not do the same for bread? The distant sourcing may be in part because customers react so profoundly to the perceived superiority of pedigree baking.

H&H Bagels, for instance, built a reputation making authentic New York bagels available wherever someone is willing to pay for shipping. Every morning Calvert “fresh bakes” the frozen bagels for a steady stream of morning customers.

The provenance, though, can distract critical impulses just as easily as it can ramp up an eatery’s feeling of authenticity. Actually eating H&H Bagels as purchased in Washington is a distinctly underwhelming experience. I bought a few at Calvert Woodley to compare to a locally baked version from Bethesda Bagels. The imports displayed a few small dark patches that seemed the result of uneven cooking. After cutting one open, the irregularities revealed themselves as holes that had almost risen to the surface, but had not broken through. The texture was bready, almost doughy; toasting did little to improve the inferior bagel.

In comparison, the exterior of a bagel baked in Bethesda and purchased locally was an even, golden-brown. The bagel’s innards were dense and chewy, presenting a subtle tangy taste I could only describe as “bagely”.

I asked Stephen Fleishman, owner of Bethesda Bagel, to compare the two. “The biggest problem is perception,” he said. “People hear New York bagel and think it’s a better product.” Bethesda, to some, doesn’t quite have the same name appeal as the Big Apple.

The odd thing about the imported-bread braggadocio is that Washington has finally become a pretty decent baking town. And the guy who deserves a chunk of the credit is Mark Furstenberg, the man who opened Marvelous Market and Breadline. Furstenberg traveled to Paris to learn from the masters at Le Moulin de la Vierge and L’Autre Boulange, in the process bringing artisanal baking to a city accustomed to buying bread at Safeway.

One day last month, I snagged a plain roll from Taylor’s K Street NW location and took it to Furstenberg’s home in Kalorama. Furstenberg reached into the crinkling brown paper bag I brought, pulled out the sesame seed studded roll, and frowned. Next, he placed his nose against the cut end, inhaled deeply and nodded, confirming some inner suspicion.

Handing me the roll, he instructed, “Smell this.” I took the roll and sniffed the same cut end, noting nothing special. Nervous, I stuck my nose deep within the precut bready void meant for Patten’s delicious fillings and took a deep breath.

“It smells like grocery store bread,” I said.

Furstenberg shook his head as he corrected me.

“Yeast. It smells of yeast, but not grain.”

Furstenberg pulled out a mahogany-colored whole grain loaf he had baked that morning. He told me to take another whiff. The difference was clear: Furstenberg’s loaf was deep, grainy, and complex.

The ingredient in the Taylor roll that invoked “grocery-store bread” was indeed yeast. Yeast-heavy dough is quick to rise, less temperamental, and processed start to finish in a matter of hours. Commercial bakers lean heavily on the leavener to produce bread reliably and quickly. In other words: From a haute-baking point of view, Taylor’s rolls were lousy.

Mass-produced breads may hit shelves quickly, Furstenberg explained, but they have little personality. Look at the internal structure of yeast driven, quick-rise pizza crusts, bagels, or baguettes. The shape and baking process that finish the product may be different, but at their core, they’re all the same. It’s all white bread.

Ditto the idea that where something was baked might influence how it tastes. “People have been baking bread for 6,000 years,” Furstenberg said, downplaying the idea that local water might make a difference. “There is nothing mystical about the water. A good baker filters it anyway to remove chlorine and other impurities.”

Fleishman, for his part, says nobody noticed a difference in his bagels when his water-tweaking machine broke six months into operation. He never bothered to fix it: The key contributor to the flavor and consistency of his bagels isn’t water, he says. It’s process.

“I think those guys have done a tremendous marketing job,” Furstenberg sniffed about Taylor.

I had my first hoagie at the Penn State Sub Shop in central Pennsylvania, where I lived as a kid. I remember nothing about the bread. But I do have a distinct memory of shredded lettuce, and onions shaved so thin they were almost a whisper. I can still see them fall out of my sandwich onto oil stained paper while I ate. To this day whole leaf lettuce on a sub makes me shiver.

Patten’s description of his first visit to Philly’s Primo Hoagies sounds fairly similar. He ordered a cold-cut sandwich and watched dutifully as a sandwich maker grabbed whole salami from the deli case and sliced his meat to order. At that time, Primo used Sarcone’s bread.

The loaf became his ideal for sandwich bread. And, despite Furstenberg’s dismissals, there’s nothing wrong with that: The great, big problem with trying to evaluate the bread on its own artisanal merits is that, for the sandwich Patten serves, a comparatively bland loaf of white bread may be just the ticket. And the fact that he had to travel a long way to get it was a way of underlining his authenticity, not his baking chops.

Pedigree and geography have little to do with a baked goods’ character, but the perceived effect has a huge impact on consumer preference. Geert Piferoen may claim he chose imported bread from France because of quality and cost considerations, but I have a hunch the decision has as much to do with an experience that resonates with his Belgian roots. Our nostalgia for our past is what makes this marketing shtick work so well. Restaurants that market imported or pedigreed bread aren’t selling excellence, even though some may sell excellent products. They’re primarily selling an appeal to our past.

Back at Taylor, Patten is still trying to recreate his own memories. He declines to say which bakery he’s using these days. But he says the effort to match Sarcone’s bread has been time-consuming, with scores of taste tests and no small amount of tweaking. After two years of running the store, now he at least knows the lingo, throwing around terms like “jump” to describe how his new rolls expand vertically when the baked, and “run,” to describe the lateral expansion he’s worked to avoid.

Patten says the only reason he stayed mum about the bread change was that he wanted to finalize his new supply. He says he thinks he’s almost got it.