In December of 2008, Samuel Fromartz, a freelance writer desperate for work in a recession-gutted economy, got the opportunity of a lifetime. On assignment with the travel magazine Afar, Fromartz, a longtime amateur baker, flew to Paris to work in a traditional boulangerie, with the goal of learning to make the perfect baguette. In the process, he learned a lot about bread-making across the globe. His book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf (Viking, Sept.), chronicles his international bread expedition, offering readers a look at the complexity and rich history of one of the world’s oldest—and most beloved—foods. PW spoke with Fromartz about what makes a perfect baguette, why he’s hot on German bread, and why baking in a boulangerie is a total workout.

Where did you work when you first arrived in France?

It was at boulangerie [Arnaud] Delmontel. I had to find a bakery on short notice, and luckily I had a friend in Paris who helped me out. We chose that particular bakery because the baker spoke English—my French is not that good—and he had recently won the award for the best baguette in Paris.

Before you went to France, you’d been baking for a long time at home. How did you feel once you started working alongside the pros?

It’s completely different baking in a professional setting. The main difference is the volume, and what you have to do to produce that volume. At home, if I bake a lot, I’ll bake six loaves, but usually just two at a time. Whereas in the bakery, when you finish one task—shaping a loaf—you’re mixing another batch of dough. It’s a job; it’s work. And, physically, it’s really demanding. Just being on your feet, dealing with hundreds of pounds of dough, constantly moving—it becomes a kind of a workout.

You describe baking at home as being relaxing and involving an almost Zen-like concentration. Was it hard to focus in the boulangerie setting?

Not at all. I think, in a high-production environment, you really get into that zone. Bakers aren’t big on talking; a lot of them are pretty introverted. They tend to work alone in the middle of the night. It takes a certain attention. In the past, mistakes have been made, especially in terms of speed and trying to knock out as many breads as quickly as [one] could, that really led to a degradation of the bread itself.

You mention that French bread had been in decline since the 1960s and is only now making a comeback. Was the pressure to produce at such a high volume one of the reasons for that decline?

It was the insistence on speed, actually. Total volume probably went down, because people stopped eating bread. The consumption has been declining for decades. And part of the reason, maybe, is that the product itself is just not as good as it once was. The bakers in France that are now bringing it back are still a minority—less than 10 percent.

How does the resurgence of artisan bread in the U.S. compare with that in Europe?

I think it’s equivalent. I don’t think we have the tradition here in the U.S. that they have in Europe. In Europe, it’s bringing back something that is part of a cultural tradition. Here, I think it’s more about inventing a new tradition. What’s interesting, and what I didn’t get into in the book, is the amount of sharing that’s going on between these bakers globally. It used to be the case that American bakers would go to France or other parts of Europe to learn techniques and come back. But now the movement is happening the other way, as well.

Let’s talk about the baguette. You avoided it in your own home baking. Is it an especially difficult loaf?

It’s one of the hardest breads to make. There are a lot of factors that go into making a great baguette, which isn’t the case with many other types of bread.

What makes a great baguette?

It starts with the color of the loaf, which shouldn’t be pale or pasty looking. It should be sort of dark and caramelized in color. The crust should give a little bit; it shouldn’t be rock solid, which means it’s been sitting around too long. The five signature slashes on the top of the loaf—they should look like they kind of burst open. When you cut into it, it should have a very airy, irregular crumb—by which I mean different-sized holes in the interior. The taste should be a complexity of flavor, from both the crust and the interior. It should have a sweetness that comes from the wheat itself. When the carbohydrates are fermented they turn into sugars, and you should be able to taste that.

You went to other parts of the world, as well. What were some breads from other countries that you really liked?

As I started to move away from just using white flours and the baguette to more whole-grain breads and different flours, such as rye, I really wanted to investigate a place where that bread was a staple. So I ended up going to Germany and, in particular, to Berlin. I spent a week making some wonderful whole-grain breads with freshly milled flours. These are dense, but not brick-heavy, loaves. They were substantive. And all of these different grains have a very particular taste, as well as texture. I think what we lack here [in the U.S.] is an appreciation of those breads, which can be really wonderful.

What are your hopes for bread-making in the U.S. in the next few years?

I hope home bread-making takes off. I think people don’t realize how easy it is to make a loaf of bread, and that it isn’t particularly time-consuming. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a really easy, natural process. With the Internet, [home-baking] seems to have exploded. I think that will work in tandem with what’s going on with artisan baking—bringing a lot of different breads to our palettes. To me it’s not just the bread itself that’s the important thing but the act of making it—it’s really special.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey by Samuel Fromartz. Viking, Sept. ISBN 978-0-670-02561-9