I’ve never spontaneously hugged a baker before.
“Your bread is one of the three top reasons I moved to Tucson,” I say, enfolding my arms around Don Guerra of Barrio Bread.
With a genuine grin, he hugs me back.
“I love hearing that!”
I had Facebook friended Guerra last week. I realize this may make me a fan girl.
From the moment I walked into The Carriage House two hours ago, the delicious, doughy scent of Guerra’s bread had been taunting me. How foolish it was to arrive on an empty stomach.
So when baskets were finally passed around, I admit, I couldn’t quite restrain myself from nibbling before instructed to do so by Bread Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love author Simran Sethi.
I glanced around the room. I wasn’t the only one sneaking a sample.
Fifty-five of us have gathered to discuss taste, conservation and how to preserve the foods we love.
Petite, raven-haired Sethi talks in a machine gun-like patter that indicates both how impassioned she is and how quickly her brain is firing. Edible Baja Arizona editor Megan Kimble introduces Simran with some sobering statistics to frame the topic of agricultural biodiversity: 95 percent of the world’s calories come from only five species and the “global standard diet” consists of just five staples: corn, wheat, rice, palm oil and soybeans.
The fact is we are eating fewer varieties of food. And many of those foods are lacking not only nutritional value, but taste. Simran wants to know what that says about us as eaters, that we settle for this kind of bland sustenance.
The reality of that question hangs in the air.
I’m thinking about an entrée I sent back at a restaurant last week because it was devoid of flavor and I refused to squander the calories. I had another glass of wine instead, which pleased my palate.
Though Simran traveled to some pretty tasty destinations—Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Italy among them—she found her book was shaping up to be a “chore.”
So she refocused her efforts, sharing that a life without rice would be okay, but not one without chocolate. She didn’t want to write a book that was an “abstract endeavor;” rather, she wanted to remember and celebrate food she (and others) love.
“Chocolate got me through my divorce; it charts my life. It’s more constant than a husband, a job, or a lover.”
I see heads nodding.
Economic fairness is important, to be sure, but Fair Trade foods that lack flavor…well, that’s not what Simran has in mind for those of us who are going to lead a biodiversity revolution. She counsels us to choose flavor above all else and underscores that you don’t have to be a sophisticate to know what tastes good.
“Why aren’t we eating juicily and with joy?” she asks. “Taste is both universal and personal.”
That’s when Guerra’s bread is shared.
Guerra’s bread is revelatory. He’s among the most celebrated artisan bakers in the U.S., yet he is a breadmaker of and for the people, a community-first baker.
He’s what Simran calls a “hero along the food supply chain.”
Guerra’s bread is so satisfying because it reflects of a sense of and pride in place. He blends heritage grains including white Sonora wheat—fifty-five percent of his grain is grown in Southern Arizona—producing 900 loaves a week, which he sells through CSAs, at Metal Arts Village and at schools.
Guerra says it’s rewarding to see a “little kid gnawing on a piece of my bread.”
Though I am sorely tempted to shove the piece I’ve plucked into my mouth in one fell swoop, Simran wants us to smell the bread, to notice its texture, to be grateful and mindful.
Though it’s a certain kind of torture, I inhale and detect a slight sharp sourness that I like, an earthiness and a roasted quality. The crust is studded with seeds. In contrast, the store-bought bread we’ve been given for comparison smells vaguely like sweet plastic and its crust is indistinguishable from the body, save for its slightly darker color.
Visually, Guerra’s whole wheat sesame has far more holes than the uniform conventional bread. Guerra’s bread stretches and offers more of a toothy mouthfeel that reveals layers of taste as I chew. The inferior bread simply tears; its taste is one-note, which is to say, almost devoid of taste.
It’s the bread of every quickie airport, cafeteria, and truckstop meal.
Flannel-shirted Todd Bostock of Sonoita-based Dos Cabezas Wineworks has the kind of rumpled, slightly unfocused charm of TV’s Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation.
Though I have a hard time following his speech—which often wanders from one thought to the next without conclusion—the man makes some damn fine red wine.
At 4,300 feet in elevation, his vineyard is one of the highest spots in the world that grapes grow. “We’re growing wine in an extreme spot,” Bostock says.
Evidently not many of us, because I hear surprised murmurs in the audience.
For the past 11 years, Bostock has planted a bunch of varietals and tinkered with blends to see what “grows good.” He and Simran chat about the marketability of wine—the tyranny of cabernet sauvignon, say—and how many grapes are under-utilized. As drinkers, we can be “disruptors” by tasting bottles we are unfamiliar with.
“It’s like Bordeaux won the Super Bowl 200 years ago,” says Bostock with the kind of fatigue that comes with pitching a region that most wine aficionados dismiss. “I mean, it’s not like the varieties you don’t know are any less delicious.”
That truth is acknowledged when we sip. His sangoviese-based blend is well-rounded with nice minerality and red fruit, and maybe citrus notes.
But tasting notes don’t matter, he says. External stimuli—cost, color, labeling—are meaningless ways to judge what you like. Your taste buds know better.
Someone asks about wine pairings. Bostock shifts in his stool, summoning a response. He finally shares that some gambles are more likely to pay off than others. But in summary, he says “good company” is a surefire bet.
And so, as Simran advocates we broaden our “sense library” and step our of our consumption comfort zone, I inhale Bostock’s El Norte and roll a swig around in my mouth. I taste leather and dried fruit in this rich, round syrah-based vino. It marries beautifully with Guerra’s apricot-studded levain.
Though I’ve eaten and drunk little, I am sated. My final scrawl is this: “Open up to serendipity.”
Header Image: The night’s speakers (left to right) were Don Guerra, Megan Kimble, Simran Sethi, and Todd Bostock.