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Baker Competed in Rimini, Italy

  • A sesame-encrusted baguette shaped like a wheat stalk. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    A sesame-encrusted baguette shaped like a wheat stalk. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Martin Philip checks the consistency of a baguette. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Martin Philip checks the consistency of a baguette. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • At top, Martin Philip scores baguettes at King Arthur Flour in Norwich. He was a member recently of an American team at an international artisanal breadmaking competition in Italy. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    At top, Martin Philip scores baguettes at King Arthur Flour in Norwich. He was a member recently of an American team at an international artisanal breadmaking competition in Italy. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Martin Philip slides freshly baked baguettes onto a cooling rack after spending the morning making ciabatta bread, baguettes, and other baked goods at King Arthur Flour. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Martin Philip slides freshly baked baguettes onto a cooling rack after spending the morning making ciabatta bread, baguettes, and other baked goods at King Arthur Flour. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A sesame-encrusted baguette shaped like a wheat stalk. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Martin Philip checks the consistency of a baguette. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • At top, Martin Philip scores baguettes at King Arthur Flour in Norwich. He was a member recently of an American team at an international artisanal breadmaking competition in Italy. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Martin Philip slides freshly baked baguettes onto a cooling rack after spending the morning making ciabatta bread, baguettes, and other baked goods at King Arthur Flour. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

They came, they baked, they nearly conquered. Two weeks ago, an American four-man team of top bread bakers from around the country, including Martin Philip, a baker at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, competed in Rimini, Italy in the 34th international exhibition for the artisan production of gelato, pastry, confectionary and bakery.

Known also by its Italian acronym SIGEP, the competition attracts bakers from around the world. In the past, 10 teams have competed annually to take home the coveted Golden Cup for Bread, but this year organizers decided that the winners of the past five years would compete against each other for the 2013 prize. Germany, Hungary, Italy, Israel and the U.S. participated, but in the end Italy collected the cup.

There were three categories in which the bakers had to compete: traditional breads, pastry and healthy breads. The judges, said Philip, “are looking for innovation, skill and precision.”

They want to see that bakers can make the traditional breads in the traditional shapes, but they are also looking for artistry in the decorative elements. Increasingly, they are also open to the use of such ancient grains as sorghum, einkorn or neff that haven’t been found recently in traditional European baking. American bakers are on “the leading curve of that,” Philip said.

Although many Americans still think of the French, the Italians and the Germans as the preeminent and sole bread cultures, that’s no longer the case, said Philip. Not only has enthusiasm for artisanal, European-style breads exploded in this country, but these styles of bread have migrated to parts of the world where you might not expect to find them.

Last year, a team from Israel won the Golden Cup for bread in Rimini, and teams from Asia are on the rise. “Everything’s been turned on its head in terms of conventions,” Philip said. “The Japanese have great attention to detail and have been very good students of bread production. Other teams like South Korea and Taiwan are fielding high-quality product,” he said.

Philip, who began learning baking from his mother when he was a boy, moved from New York City to the Upper Valley six years ago to work with Jeffrey Hamelman, director of the King Arthur Bakery and a certified master baker.

Philip’s day starts early, around 3:30 a.m. One morning last week, he inspected a batch of baguettes, gently prodding them to make sure they were ready to go into the oven. “I’m looking for a certain softness or level of activity,” he said.

Satisfied, he then took a long-handled baker’s peel and slid the baguettes from the large canvas on which they’d been resting into the enormous German deck oven that can hold up to 250 baguettes at a time. Some 22 minutes later, the drawers were pulled open, the baguettes were immediately bagged and were ready for delivery.

Despite some last-minute rule changes in Italy that made it more difficult for the Americans to compete, Philip said, he would consider doing it, or another competition, again. “Medal or no medal, we gain,” he said, because of the communal aspect of being with bakers from around the world, learning from their techniques and recipes. Skills are expanded and refined; Philip likened it to the tide that lifts all boats.

Such exchanges between bakers, from very different cultures, is what exemplifies the pleasures and the craft of artisanal baking, he said. “To me, artisan means a combination of passion and skill.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.