John Forrest expertly hefts bright red insulated sacks, the kind used by pizza delivery people, onto his shoulder. You won’t find pizza in these sacks, though — instead, there are several two-pound loaves of fluffy sourdough, each in its own round shaping basket. Forrest is carrying his load of dough with the careful nonchalance of an experienced server balancing a heavy tray of plates on one hand, as he moves toward his destination: a European-style wood-burning oven just 35 feet from the door of Pony Farm Artisan Bread.
John and his wife, Dotty, will tell you they are just as surprised as all of their friends that after they sold the RV park they owned for 14 years in Ogilvie, MN, they moved north and became artisan bread bakers in Bemidji.
Pony Farm Food LLC is owned by Dotty Forrest’s brother-in-law, Dave Olderman. He bought the 40-acre farm about 14 years ago — it came with a Shetland pony and a house that’s almost 100 years old. Olderman sold the pony but kept the farmhouse and turned it into a bakery that officially opened for business on January 1, 2012. Now, the full-time bakers are selling 90 to 100 loaves each week for $8 a loaf. The Forrests believe that number will continue to increase as tourist season eases into high gear in northern Minnesota.
The spark for creating the bakery was struck by an article in a 1995 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Olderman, retired from a career in finance, was impressed by the magazine’s story of Lionel Poilane, acclaimed as the world’s best bread baker.
It’s no easy feat to recreate Poilane’s efforts in the (sometimes) frozen North, but Olderman has made allowances for the local climate. So that the oven will hold its heat on cold winter days, it is housed in a building that looks like a tiny cabin. The oven, however, is just the end of the process that creates Pony Farm’s bread. The magic starts at about 11 o’clock the night before baking, when John Forrest leaves the bakery where he and Dotty have been mixing dough and adding water and organic flour to the starter.
The flours used are milled just a couple of hours from Bemidji at Natural Way Mills in Middle River, MN. The baker then loads the oven with wood harvested from local forests.
The next day, as the oven continues to heat, the Forrests work with the sourdough that gets its rising power from starter that originated 250 years ago in New England. In a bright room lined on facing sides with windows, John weighs the dough, making sure each creamy, soft, voluptuous mound is exactly two pounds. He hands the dough over to Dotty, who shapes on the thick slab of wood that tops their baker’s table. She positions a small wooden cut-out of a horse exactly in the center of a cloth-lined bread basket and gently places a hefty round of dough on top of it.
When the dough has rested and puffed up to just the right size, nine voluptuous rounds are taken out to the hot oven that’s been cleaned of all traces of burning wood. About 45 minutes later John Forrest uses a large peel to pull out impressive-looking loaves of artisan sourdough bread, the result of the manipulation of time and heat. The loaves of graham and creamy white breads that are handmade and sold at Pony Farm were finalized after years of testing and tasting with family and friends. It took 1 1/2 years for the bakers to get to know the oven, a fussy heat-producing behemoth effected by humidity and outdoor temperature.
You’ll know this is not ordinary bread as soon as you take a knife to it. The thick crust, tinged with dark reflections of a wood-burning bake time, crackles as a serrated knife cuts through the top of a heavy round loaf.
The crust is chewy as it crackles and crumbles in the mouth. The moist inside has a fine texture, unlike many artisan breads that are a myriad of holes. Whether you are eating the graham or the creamy white variety, glorious tastes of sweet and sour produced by fermentation and organic grain elicit moans of satisfaction. A nutlike flavor lingers on the tongue for several minutes after your last bite of bread.
Mixed with organic flour from a local mill, shaped by hand, baked the ancient way in a wood-burning oven, the rustic loaves of sourdough bread are a feast for the eyes and the palate. And it only gets better with age. The Forrests say the bread has the best flavor and consistency when it is a couple of days old. Because the bread is made with no added chemicals, it will stay fresh for at least a week when stored in a bag on the kitchen counter. If a two-pound loaf is a bit much for you, cut the loaf into manageable pieces and store them in the freezer.
Pony Farm Food Artisan Bread
4218 Lake Ave NE