BLUE MOUNDS - Even by rural Wisconsin standards, Cress Spring Bakery is almost off the grid. Narrow roads meander through isolated hills, and the occasional farmhouse or flock of sheep seems like a surprising reminder of civilization.
Even so, the bakery Jeff Ford opened in 1996 at a former yoga retreat on 160 acres of farmland is now firmly on the map of the food-obsessed. A story on the bakery made the New York Times Magazine's annual food issue last month, something not unlike an actor winning an Academy Award.
"We've been buried in emails and phone calls since the Times story came out," said Ford on a recent Friday, the day he bakes the 450 loaves that he'll drive to the Dane County Farmers' Market well before dawn on Saturday. "Since the story we've been selling out by 10:30 in the morning."
The passion of gastro-groupies should never be underestimated, Ford has learned. A Washington, D.C., woman who'd read the Times story made the pilgrimage to the Farmers' Market, only to be told that the last loaf of the newly famous bread was already gone.
"She broke into tears when I told her I don't ship outside of Wisconsin or Illinois," he said.
He also fielded a call from someone in Berkeley, Calif., who claimed, "They don't make any good bread out here."
The recent hoopla doesn't belie the fact that Cress Springs is just a two-person operation. Ford, 43, shares the workload with Sarah "Biggie" Lemke, 29, who left a career in Manhattan restaurants to intern at Cress Spring Bakery. With just four days notice, she came here to join Ford, whom she'd never met.
"I moved from a city of 8 million people to a place where there's nothing but cows and cornfields," she said. "This strange man picks me up at the airport and I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is an after-school special waiting to happen.'"
That was four years ago.
It was Ford's oven that enticed Lemke. The 4-foot-by-6-foot hearth was designed by the late Alan Scott who, within in the world of brick ovens, had the stature of a Frank Lloyd Wright. Scott, who'd been a blacksmith, built the first of his brick ovens for his neighbor in California, Laurel Robertson; Robertson wrote the seminal vegetarian cookbook. "Laurel's Kitchen."
Scott and Ford met at a baker's conference in Berkeley, and Scott traveled to Blue Mounds to take part in the "oven raising" 13 years ago. The massive oven they built holds 45 loaves at a time, and on baking days (Wednesdays and Fridays) it's in use from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
When the bread is baking, there is no fire in the oven. Wood, gathered by Ford from nearby forests, burns in the oven all the previous day. It's so heavily insulated that the heat is trapped inside the hearth throughout the following day, when baking is done. First thing in the morning on baking day, the temperature in the oven is 750 degrees; it dies down to 450 degrees by the end of the day.
"There's a high learning curve to this. It's not like you can just hit a switch for the temperature you want," Ford said. The 14 types of loaves are baked on Fridays, so they're fresh for the Farmers' Market, while the cookies, scones, granolas, croissants, tartlets, brioche and fruit bars are in the oven on Wednesdays.
The massive oven, which dominates the first floor of Ford's home, is not the only thing that distinguishes Cress Spring breads. Because he intensely dislikes commercial baker's yeast ("a rapidly multiplying fungi"), and suspects it of causing all sorts of maladies, he instead uses a natural fermenting process that takes a full 24 hours. He buries sourdough starters in a bag of flour in buckets that stand below a poster of Muhammad Ali and beside an old mixer with a picture of Bob Dylan taped onto it.
"Natural fermentation - bacteria on the grain - is how it was done for thousands of years," Ford said.
It was not until the late 1800s that bakers' yeast was introduced, and not until after World War II that it became the default leavening agent.
Ford also uses stays away from industrially produced wheat, and instead uses mostly Kamut, spelt and rye flours.
Although Ford won't label any of his products "gluten-free," he says many of his customers with varying degrees of wheat sensitivity tell him that they can tolerate his breads much better than other types.
The breads are heavy and tangy, with thick, well-developed and slightly charred golden crusts. They're aromatic and complex, and it's easy to understand that Ford has zealously loyal customers.
But, still ... how does a two-person bakery in the boonies of Wisconsin score a two-page spread in the New York Times Magazine?
As is often the case, it was word of mouth. Last year, the magazine's food issue featured Ford's neighbor, the cheesemaker Willi Lehner. The Times contacted Lehner this year to ask if he could recommend anyone for this year's edition. And it'll probably be quite a while before things settle down at Cress Spring Bakery.