Nostalgia for a classic dish sends Joe off on a breadcrumb trail
By rights there should be few things duller than breadcrumbs. However, these apparently characterless granules have now been one of my preoccupations for weeks. My problem was, ultimately, a case of taste coupled with stubborn determination.
My wife and I share the cooking. We each have our favourite dishes and, amongst mine, is veal coated with breadcrumbs – the classic Wiener schnitzel. While others might see crumbs used in this way as bland decoration, I see them very differently; when buying new supplies I become very pernickety. Not for me breadcrumbs that are artificial and pre-packed; my priority is those golden granules coming from the crusts of genuine loaves and having their very distinct taste, texture and smell.
In France, finding such wholesome breadcrumbs is relatively easy. With little prompting, the shop assistant at my local baker reaches into the drawer under her bread slicer, scoops the crumbs up with her hands and gives them to me in a plastic bag; and all for free. Just before cooking, I grind a meal’s worth down to the classic particle size.
This is the recognised method in rural Brittany. In a London suburb, things are not so simple. Here it is almost impossible to find a baker who can, or will, oblige. When I hunted for them recently, it took me three days and six shops and, as each attempt failed, my determination grew. I was in no mind to be thwarted.
My first try was at a bakery at the back of a local supermarket. It was late in the afternoon, there was no one serving at the counter and, as I soon realised, no bread slicer either. Apart from buns, cakes and croissants, this outlet dealt exclusively with loaves sold whole. I took a ‘self-service’ paper bag from a hook and began to fill it up with crumbs that had collected in the bottom of a series of now-empty display trays. Within seconds of my starting, I felt a large presence looking over my shoulder. It was the shop’s security guard – a retired policeman I would imagine. He asked what I was doing, questioned my explanation, and gently walked me to the shop’s back door. As a gesture of goodwill he allowed me to keep my pickings which, as it happens, were far too few to be useful.
In the second shop, there was a slicer but its collecting drawer doubled as a waste paper basket. The smiling assistant, who happened to be French, offered to separate the crumbs from the rubbish but I politely declined. In the third, the assistant said that while he had plenty of crumbs, he would have to get permission from his supervisor. Unfortunately, she was not about at the time and I left empty handed. In the fourth shop, the assistant told me, in an almost scripted manner, that selling loose breadcrumbs was against the shop’s health and safety policy. And anyway, he would not know what to charge – there was no assigned code on the till for loose breadcrumbs.
The assistant in the fifth shop was warm to my request, asking me to come back when the drawer was full. I went back three times and, on each occasion, the ‘cupboard was bare’.
Finally, in the sixth shop, a second supermarket, there were more than enough breadcrumbs in the tray for my needs and I was welcome to have as many as I wanted. I was delighted and relieved – it had been a long search. That evening my escalopes were brushed with beaten eggs, ‘dunked’ in a bowl of freshly-crushed breadcrumbs, and finally fried in salted Brittany butter. A real treat, my search was vindicated.
It is clear that breadcrumbs have an important place in my personal life, however, there is also an international perspective. When it comes to relationships between England and France, the humble breadcrumb reveals how, in certain aspects of our every day life – the world of the kitchen – there remains a deep gulf between our two cultures.
It will take years before there is parity and I suspect that our differences in the appreciation of the breadcrumb will be affected very little by whether or not we remain the European Union!
Photo credit: Wiener schnitzel by Kobako [Wikimedia Commons]