Artisan bakers in Bemidji aim to make dough
BEMIDJI -- Old-world traditions have led to a new business venture for a trio of rural Bemidji artisan bread-bakers. Their sourdough starter is older than the Revolutionary War, said Dave Olderman, owner of Pony Farm Food LLC. The hand-formed loa...
BEMIDJI -- Old-world traditions have led to a new business venture for a trio of rural Bemidji artisan bread-bakers.
Their sourdough starter is older than the Revolutionary War, said Dave Olderman, owner of Pony Farm Food LLC. The hand-formed loaves are made from organic flour and baked in an authentic European-style wood-fired oven heated with local poplar and red oak.
Olderman, a farm boy from Ohio who spent his business career in banking in New York, is joined in the business by John and Dotty Forrest, who moved to Bemidji four years ago from Ogilvie, Minn. Dotty is Olderman's sister-in-law. He is married to her siste,r Jean; they will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary Dec. 29. Both couples live on Kitchi Lake, but the business is located on property Olderman owns at 4218 Lake Ave. NE.
Olderman started out baking bread for family, friends and neighbors, often holding family gatherings on the 40-acre Lake Avenue property. Eventually, he decided maybe he could turn making artisan bread into a successful business. Pony Farm Food opened last week on a trial basis.
They bake three days a week and are open for sales of bread and raw local honey from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The oven is open to the public for viewing.
"We're doing some test-marketing," Olderman said. "We've set some benchmarks we'd like to achieve. We would like to go into this on a bigger scale."
Larry Zea, who lives near Olderman, stopped by to buy a loaf of bread Tuesday afternoon.
"It's delicious bread," he said, adding that he has been eating the bread for a long time as a friend and is now continuing to do so as a customer.
Olderman got interested in bread-baking in 1995 after reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine proclaiming that artisan baker Lionel Poilâne of Paris made the world's best bread.
"I started calling him and talking to him," Olderman said. "He hung up on me for 11 months."
Finally, Poilâne started listening, and the two became friends over the phone. Olderman wanted to know what made Poilâne's bread the best. He responded that he thought it was the wood he used to heat the oven -- poplar and red oak.
"We've got poplar all over the place," Olderman said he recalled thinking.
He was working with Poilâne on a deal to provide training, but their talks came to an end when Poilâne, his wife and dog died in a helicopter crash Oct. 31, 2002.
Olderman still ended up being trained in Poilâne's traditions as he studied under a former Poilâne student who lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., and who built the oven on Olderman's property five or six years ago.
"It's a copy of ovens used today --some of which are over 1,000 years old -- in little towns in Europe," Olderman said.
Loaves are baked in batches of nine in the high-temperature oven, which is enclosed in a quaint wooden structure. Four cycles of 36 loaves can be baked before the oven needs to be re-fired.
While commercial ovens cook bread at 350 to 400 degrees, Dotty Forrest said, their oven bakes at 600 degrees, which forms an immediate crust and slowly bakes the inner part of the bread, called the crumb.
"It sears the outside and seals the moisture in," Olderman said, adding that the finished product has a "wonderful firm crust" and is very dense inside.
Olderman and the Forrests make three bread recipes. All are whole-grain, made with 100 percent organic wheat from Natural Way Mill in Middle River, Minn., with only water, a little sea salt and sourdough starter added. The 2-pound loaves sell for $8 each.
Olderman bought the starter, which dates back more than 250 years, about five years ago and has been maintaining it ever since by "feeding" it with flour and water every week or so.
"Bacteria needs to eat," he said. "You're giving it food."
The Creamy White recipe is made with hard red wheat with the whole germ and berry, with 5 percent bran retained. It has a smooth texture, a lighter color and balanced flavor.
Whole Berry White is made with the whole germ and berry, with 100 percent of the brain retained. The mild whole-wheat flavor has a hint of sweetness.
Golden Graham is made with hard red wheat with the whole germ and berry, with 35 percent of the brain retained. The bakers say it has a smooth flavor and is their best sandwich bread.
Olderman said they may add one more recipe, but no more. "If we make four different kinds of bread well, that will be enough," he said, adding Poilâne only made three kinds of bread and 85 percent of his sales came from one recipe.
"People would line up outside his store waiting to buy his bread," Olderman said.
The bakers say their bread's flavor and consistency is best two to three days after baking and stays fresh longer than commercial breads because it has no chemicals.
"We have kept it on the counter in a bag for over a week," John Forrest said.
"Up to two weeks," Dotty Forrest added.
"Because it's a complex carbohydrate, it changes taste every day," Olderman said. "I think it gets better every day."
Olderman and his wife go to Florida every winter, so to maintain Pony Farm Food as a business, he needs the help of John and Dotty Forrest.
"It's a family thing," Dotty said. "We're excited about it,"
"I enjoy doing this," Olderman said. "I think there's a business to be had. I think once people try our bread, they'll like it."
If the bread sales warrant expansion of the business, they plan to put in two more ovens, with a capacity of baking 1,000 loaves per day. Olderman said they will make a decision by late April or early May.
Olderman said making artisan bread takes a lot of hard work. "You knead it, you form it, you proof it by hand," he said.
"Each loaf is a work of art," Dotty Forrest said.
"For me, it's a spiritual experience," Olderman said, explaining that it feels to him like a miracle that a little water, a little flour and a little salt can create the breads they produce.
"I'm just actually amazed," he said, when he opens the oven door to reveal the smooth loaves of rich, crusty bread