Heel Thyself

Man, the Bible says, cannot live by bread alone. But if you grew up in this town, or came here more than five years ago, you certainly haven't needed to take Saint Matthew's word for it.

That's because, until quite recently, you stood as much chance of finding a decent loaf of bread in the Valley as you did finding a local branch of Mensa in the Arizona Legislature.

But even though the apostle understood that you can't live by bread alone, the Good Book elsewhere recognizes that you can't live without it: "Give us this day our daily bread."

It's the same prayer I uttered when I got here in 1990. At that time, the local bakery scene was sorry enough to make a bread lover weep. Occasionally, I'd drive to one of the handful of ethnic bakeries that carried fresh rye bread or Mexican rolls. But like everyone else, for daily needs, I had to make do with mushy, tasteless, God-awful, plastic-wrapped supermarket bread.

Things started changing in 1994, when a family of transplanted Ohioans opened the Arizona Bread Company. Bread-starved Phoenicians found just what they had been missing: great, crusty, European-style loaves that initially left the competition gasping in the dust.

But not for long. Just as the Coffee Plantation ignited a coffee-house explosion a decade ago, the pioneering Arizona Bread Company set off a bakery boom. These days, there's no shortage of savvy entrepreneurs who realize that selling fresh-baked bread in this market is a good way to roll in the dough.

I've just completed a bread tour, checking out six bakeries. For consistency's sake, I did all my shopping and sampling between 11 a.m. and noon, when the bread should have been at its best. What did I find? For the most part, on this Thanksgiving holiday, Valley bread fans now have something to be genuinely thankful for.

Wildflower Bread Company, Sonora Village Shopping Center, 15640 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 991-5180. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

No bread lover will complain about making the drive to north Scottsdale to this fabulous bakery. Just a year old, this place puts out some of the finest loaves in the Mountain Time Zone. It's hard to know where to begin heaping praise. The pane Pugliese, a Saturday special fashioned with wheat, rye and olive oil, is a triumph of flavor, crust and texture. The sun-dried-tomato bread is bursting with herbs and tomato. The nine-grain loaf is complexly rich with the taste of millet, flax, sesame and a hint of honey. The caraway-flecked rye is darn near perfect, not too heavy, not too light, with a crust to die for. Cinnamon raisin walnut bread is irresistibly sweet and fruity. If you're craving a baguette, go for the rustic version, which is chewier than the regular French baguette. Let's hope Wildflower reconsiders and puts the discontinued goat cheese sourdough back into the bread rotation--I adored its scent of garlic and pieces of roasted red pepper.

And although the eggplant-and-feta baguette is more a sandwich than bread--it's a half-baguette, sliced lengthwise, topped with grilled eggplant, feta, pesto and a mound of roasted garlic--it's phenomenal. I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Rating: EXCELLENT

Bigio Breadworks, Hilton Village, 6107 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 951-9786. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.

This bakery is part of the Country Glazed Ham operation, and it may be the best-kept bread secret in town. The well-crafted breads here are big-league all the way. There's certainly no better baguette in the Valley--the one here delivers a dynamite combination of chewiness and crustiness. It's easy to make a meal out of the Sicilian pepper cheese bread, with its mild green peppers and big veins of Cheddar spread throughout. The sesame semolina is light and crunchy, and surprisingly high on flavor. If you're looking for a bread to pair with a winter soup, grab the rustic herb cheese; it's wonderfully seasoned and will stick to your ribs. The olive rosemary loaf has absolutely no shortcomings, perfectly blending taste and texture. The San Francisco sourdough is also dead-on, delivering the familiar tangy sourdough snap.

If you like your bread studded with fruit, consider the dense raisin walnut. But the real winner in this category is the breathtaking cranberry orange bread. Put it on your Christmas-dinner menu--this is as good as it gets.

Rating: EXCELLENT

Arizona Bread Company, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale (also 4025 East Chandler Boulevard, Phoenix), 948-8338. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Arizona Bread Company shows no sign of slowing down or just going through the motions. Many of the breads here still put me in a swoon. The unbelievable Italian olive bread--crusty, chewy and thick with plump, juicy olives--divinely marries taste and texture. The baguette is lovely, subtly flavored with just the right chewiness. You can smell the rosemary the minute you cut into the Italian rosemary loaf. The bold chile cheese bread, studded with zesty jalapenos, gives your tongue a pleasing tingle. At other bakeries, nine-grain bread can often turn out leaden. But the first-rate model here, blended with oats, corn, rye and buckwheat, won't sink to your stomach like a stone. I also like the honey wheatberry bread, crunchy and a bit sweet.

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