Many stories try to pin down the origin of bread, but most historians agree that somewhere around 2000 B.C. someone had the very good idea to take the grain pounded with water (flatbread) and let it rise. Whether that someone had a good day, a long nap, a lapse in consciousness or a happy accident no one knows. But the dough rose and the first loaf of leavened bread was born. O happy day.
Bread has long been a staple in the human diet and is featured symbolically in most world religions. Yet with the rise of industry, the art of making bread has steadily declined, hitting an all-time low with the dotty bagged Wonder Bread, whose sole purpose is to wad up and turn into pencil erasers. A recent Gallup Poll indicates 49 percent of Americans do not know white bread is made from wheat. Well, they must not have polled Tucson; the line out the door at our best local bakery, Beyond Bread, gives ongoing testimony to the fact that Tucson knows and loves good bread. Really, really good bread.
In 1998, Shelby and Randie Collier had the quiet little dream of opening a small bakery dedicated to artisan bread making, a back-to-basics approach making small batches of hand-formed bread on a daily basis. At the time, Shelby Collier had completed a baker's apprenticeship in Madison, Wis., and returned to Tucson to practice his craft. The idea had a certain amount of aesthetic appeal: Go bake bread, sell it, be home by noon to enjoy the idyllic, laid-back Tucson lifestyle.
Well, three successful years later, Beyond Bread has mushroomed into one of Tucson's premier bakeries with a staff of over 50 cranking out somewhere between 700 and 800 covers a day, leaving the Colliers beyond busy.
On any given day, lines form early to pick up any of the 10 or so breads offered daily. And it is no wonder, since each loaf is hand-formed and naturally leavened. Beyond Bread's recipes add no fats and for the most part no sugar. They use only unbleached, unbromated, hard wheat flours that result in fragrant, feather-light breads.
Great care is lavished not only on the bread, but on the customer as well. Tucsonans don't like to wait in line. That's why we choose to live on the verge of nowhere. Great care is taken to insure expeditious and swift service. Although lines are long, they move swiftly, snaking past the seductive pastry displays, and winding up in front of the towering wall of freshly baked loafs. Three cashiers and a crew of fast-moving servers use a powerful computer system that has a server already filling your request or making your sandwich before you're even done paying the bill.
Of course one benefit of standing in line is indulging yourself in the marvelous smell of baking bread and watching a bakery in full production. Temptation beckons, especially from the immaculate glass cases showcasing pastry chef Terri LaChance's spectacular handiwork. After logging in time at the Phoenician, LaChance has been practicing her art at Beyond Bread for the past two and a half years. Her fresh fruit tarts, ethereal cheesecakes, crème brûlée, muffins and scones are as gorgeous to look at as eat. LaChance lavishes attention to the smallest of details, from fresh blueberries perched atop a chocolate cupcake to the perfect texture of her addictive Russian tea cakes. Her baked goods fill the case as quickly as they get snatched up, boxed and whisked away.
If you don't have a sweet tooth, just stand in line a bit longer and contemplate the menu, a substantial list of sandwiches, all featuring fresh bread. Blessedly, the sandwiches are named for ease. Nothing has been inflicted with a name involving a famous artist or performer that requires long convoluted associations. (How do they know Dillinger ate pickles? Why does a Sinatra have pastrami on it? Did Dylan really like onions?) No, these are quick and simple names for sandwiches featuring simple and pure ingredients.
The portions are extremely generous and one sandwich can easily feed two. Avi's Avo ($5.75) is an enormous turkey and avocado sandwich served on ciabatta. Ollie's Original ($4.75) is a simple and filling combination of feta, tomato, red onion, cucumber and tapenade served on a baguette. The hot sandwiches are tempting. Gino's Grinder ($5.50) is understandably popular with its tender capicolla, roasted red peppers, red onion and provolone served on a baguette ($5.50). For vegetarians, the Maya's Market ($5) features piquant roasted vegetables (the balsamic glaze gives them zip) with provolone and baba ganoush (roasted puréed eggplant) served on wheat. Although the combination is unexpected, the sandwich is oddly comforting and a nice blend of flavors.
If you crave greens, the salads are ample and feature a crisp blend of baby greens. The Greek salad ($5) and the hummus and baba ganoush platter ($5) are standouts. Both are served with dressing and a slice of bread, and make a satisfying lunch.
Whether you go to Beyond Bread for a quick lunch stop or a pastry fix, don't forget to pay homage at the wall of freshly baked bread. This takes a bit of preparation and self-restraint. Try to focus on why you're there since the temptation is to buy loaves and loaves of golden, fragrant bread goods ... the verging on miraculous ciabatta, the baguette, the feathery focaccia, the walnut bread or challah ... the list goes on and on and rotates daily. So many breads, so little time.
Of course, you could, like most of us, just keep planning return visits. With bread this good, there's no reason to have to wad up little balls of white bread for pencil erasers anymore.