Lord of The Sourdoughs

Saint Agnes, a St. Paul bakery with a charismatic head baker, rises

Saint Agnes Baking Co.
1250 W. Seventh St., St. Paul
651.290.7633 (Wholesale)

Mississippi Market Co-Op
622 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651.310.9499
And 1810 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, 651.690.0507

The Wedge Co-Op
2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.871.3993

In Poland, according to Klecko, on Christmas Eve, the animals come alive and talk to each other. When they do this, they had better have something good to talk about. Like, for instance, how they--be they squirrels, sparrows, or starlings--prefer their baguettes to have whole nuts in them, as well as a little Chinese honey and some olive oil, and ideally some kind of whole-seed crust, be it poppy seed, sunflower seed in the shell, or even just your basic birdseed mix.

"Bakers are supposed to give back to Christ by giving to the animals," explains Klecko. "In Poland, they would tend to do this in the woods. But here in St. Paul, I do it out on Randolph and Snelling, by J&S [The Bean Factory]. You know that place? That's where all the cool people over 40 go. Anyway, this Christmas what I did was I hung all these baguettes covered with seeds and honey from a tree, surrounded it with beast-bread boules, and set the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost out there too." (These are loaves that Klecko freezes, carves with a Dremel tool, decorates, and bakes: The Father and Son are here pictured with him.) "I didn't even tell anybody I was going to do it--I just did it. I finished not too long before midnight, then I sat back and watched. Then I came back at 4 a.m., back at 8 a.m. It was wonderful. At 4 a.m. the guys in orange vests, road construction guys, were freaking out. They thought it was some kind of Blair Witch Project. Then later you'd see what the animals would take, and what was missing. I used poppy seeds for the beard of the Christ, and the animals just go crazy for it, and then for the beard of the father I use coconut, and the animals attack that just as well. So stuff starts to be missing. Those animals were so happy. Basically--well, I'll tell you, even though it's a Polish-type secret thing, that when the dough is mixed, you have to stick your hands into the dough and ask the spirit of God to enter into it, and that activates the Trinity within the bread and draws the birds and animals to it. I made one for my mother, too--because you have to carve an extra Christ for your mother or you're going to go to hell--and she told me the squirrels came up to her on the sill and thanked her for it."

And that, my friends, is Klecko: The head baker and production manager for St. Paul bakery Saint Agnes; the self-proclaimed "Lord of the Sourdoughs." (The first time I heard of Klecko was when he left a Christmas message on my phone machine: "This is Klecko, Lord of the Sourdoughs! I am the Lord! Of all sourdoughs! Call me.") Klecko was born Dan McGleno, but is called that by, apparently, no one; and aside from his sovereignty, he has distinguished himself in my mind as the only baker in town who spends his time trying to engineer breads to please highly specific audiences with highly specific needs, be they downtown sandwich makers, NHL hockey fans, squirrels, or you yourself.

See, you probably don't even know it, but chances are good you already have a favorite Saint Agnes bread. Ever had that beautiful black bread with the raisins they serve at the Saint Paul Hotel? It's a Saint Agnes sourdough. You know the brat buns at the Xcel Energy Center, the resilient ones specially engineered to resist ice-melt humidity and never fall apart? Saint Agnes. How about that perfect sandwich bread from D-Brian's, downtown, the fuel-of-a-thousand-office-workers? You guessed it. (Those, by the way, are special-order "basket" loaves, which are a good twice the size of normal breads.) The big, cushiony hamburger buns at T.G.I.Friday's, the ones that make a destination hamburger? Sometimes, Saint Agnes makes three hundred dozen of those a day. Mystic Lake, Stillwater's Dock Café, Dixie's Calhoun, Maria's Café, Bunny's, Mickey's Diner, Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter, and a hundred more local spots feature Saint Agnes breads. Almost any place where popular appeal, cost-consciousness, and quality meet, Saint Agnes is there.

Like at the Mississippi Markets, or at Minneapolis's Wedge Co-op, where Saint Agnes's best-known bread, the "nasty," is terrifically popular. "As we enter into a new century," says Klecko, "People no longer associate Irish soda bread with St. Paul. My city has formed its own identity, and it's "nasty." [Nasty bread is] kind of like having Dennis Rodman for a stepson--you know immediately if you love it or don't; few people tread in between." Anyway, I had never tried Saint Agnes's "nasty" sourdough, a bread made with a double dose of the sourdough starter that has been bubbling along in a pail on West Seventh Street for some 15 years. The big surprise to me was that this nasty bread isn't sour, biting, or acidic, which is what I expected; it is in fact sweet and evocative, tender and accessible. If it were a cheese, it would be a nice rich Wisconsin cheddar, not a stinky old blue.

Klecko says that mine is a popular misconception about sourdough, that the point of increasing the level of sourdough starter is to give the final loaf heft and weight, not bite. It's all about density, says Klecko. And as he is the Lord of the Sourdoughs, and has been making breads in the same location for some 15 years, who am I to quibble?

In fact, Klecko has been working at Saint Agnes longer than there has been a Saint Agnes, because the business now known as Saint Agnes has been around for decades, the whole bakery (buildings, ovens, recipes, mixers, and even some human bakers) chugging along despite various shutdowns or changes in ownership . These days the bakery is owned by Gary Sande and Larry Burns, who have turned the company into one of the larger custom bakeries in town--though I think it would be even more popular if that fantastic Saint Paul Hotel black raisin bread were available in stores, or if another bread of theirs I got to try--a sourdough-based jalapeño/pepper Jack cheese bread--was made into hot dog or hamburger buns. How happy would you be if you could get your Cheddarwurst on a pepper-jack bun? Aside from the fact that we'd have to reinforce the border to Wisconsin with razor-wire fences to stave off the invading hordes hell-bent on capturing our cheese-rich buns, I think it's a clear win-win. I bet these Christmas "beast breads," for the beasts, would go over big, too. I bet if you put ribbons on them, there could be one hanging from every tree in Crocus Hill.

If any of my brilliant ideas ever did get sold, you'd probably see them first at one of the places retail customers can most easily find Saint Agnes products--namely, the Mississippi Markets, the Wedge Co-op, or, in the summer, at either of the main Minneapolis or St. Paul farmers' markets. (When I shopped recently at the Selby Mississippi Market, prices ranged from $1.39 for a package of six hot-dog buns to $3.19 for a 24-ounce chewy, intense wild-rice nasty bread.)

In addition to the black raisin and jalapeño-pepper Jack, Saint Agnes has a whole menu of other breads they could easily unleash: If only we all plead enough, Klecko might even introduce some bialys at the farmers' markets. He's been practicing, and he says a Saint Agnes bialy rivals a New York one. Does it? Who knows? Let's find out. So everyone, please, begin wheedling now. Start this Sunday, February 9 at the Selby/Dale Mississippi Market, where, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Klecko will be talking about sourdough, St. Paul baking traditions, the growing cult of Klecko, and how to engineer a bread to please any palate.

Just don't tell the squirrels!

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