Romancing The Scone
Have you had enough romance in your life this week? If not, consider this:
Four generations ago, near the chill Nova Scotia coast, in a grand, rich house called Briar Dean there lived a young and headstrong girl, a girl with the strong eyes and the regal beauty of the fierce Scots pioneers, from whom she was descended. This girl, this beautiful girl, was the privileged daughter of a member of the Canadian parliament, and she led the sort of life in which any time she wanted she could plop down among the silks and brocades and eat as many buttery shortbread cookies and flaky scones as she could stuff into her pretty mouth. Then she would stand at the window and watch the cold northern rain running in chill veins down the glass. She would stand there at the window and look at the scrubby trees quivering in the constant Atlantic wind and she would think that more than anything, more than anything in the world, she didn't want to be a rich girl in a beautiful house, she wanted to be a nurse in America.
So she fell in love, and married a paint salesman, and never looked back. Because that is what we do in America, we never look back. Except sometimes, on the weekends, when we think we might like to have some cookies. On the weekends, when Nana Kirk, as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would come to call her, thought she might like to have some cookies, she would make the rich Scottish shortbreads and buttery scones of her wealthy Scots-Canadian childhood, and everyone liked them very much. They were undeniably excellent cookies. Even if you weren't a nurse or a paint salesman or a member of the Canadian parliament with trees trembling in the Atlantic wind, these were buttery, sturdy treats, and they made a mind go quiet and happy. Sadly, eventually, like most everyone, Nana Kirk died.
Later, she had a great-grandchild. This great-granddaughter grew up in Minnesota, and she was named Amy Goetz, and she was tall and beautiful, with strong blue eyes and a musical nature. In fact, she was so musical that she left Minnesota for Boston where she got a master's degree in music education, and sang Gilbert and Sullivan on the stage. Yet, like so many musical young women, she eventually decided that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life slugging it out with other musical young women, and thought she might do something else with her life. So she and her mother got together and thought and thought, and eventually they thought, Well, what about Nana Kirk's shortbread? And what about Nana Kirk's scones?
So Amy got out her little five-quart KitchenAid and got to work. She found a single coffee shop in St. Paul to sell her shortbread and scones. Then she found another. And another. She wanted to name her company after her Nana Kirk, whom she had never even met, but thought that Briar Dean didn't make too much sense on a package, so she modified it to the friendlier Bramblewood Cottage. Soon her Bramblewood Cottage shortbread cookies were in a number of stores and coffee shops, and she was so busy with her little mixer that she forgot to mention to anyone that she was about to have a baby, and as she was on her way to the hospital she called her coffee shops and said, "I'm sorry, I won't be delivering any cookies for a few days."
Because there are some parts of starting up a small business that aren't like a fairy tale at all. Five days later, all the coffee shops called up to say, "Where are our scones? Where are our cookies? Our customers are crying for their cookies." So Amy got up and strapped her little baby to her back and started up her little mixer. Her little girl, popularly known as G-Bug, her little girl's first phrase would be, "Momma bakes."
Time passed. Soon Amy and Bramblewood Cottage got a commercial kitchen, and soon she was selling her cookies at the downtown Minneapolis Farmers' Market on Thursdays, and at the St. Paul Farmers' Market on weekends. She came up with all sorts of creative new flavors for her shortbread cookies, like lavender-ginger, rosemary, and orange-chocolate chip. Her Bramblewood Cottage shortbread began to get picked up by the most prestigious markets in the Twin Cities, in places like Surdyk's Cheese Shop, Cooks of Crocus Hill, and the Bibelot Shops. It all looked very rosy. Soon she was even sold in the large Kowalski's Market, where they don't order merely five or six packages of cookies at a time, but whole entire cases.
Suddenly: Kablooey! Life got to looking a whole lot less like a fairy tale. With all the pressures of a new business and young family, Amy and her husband were headed for a divorce. And, just as divorces always do, this divorce created all sorts of cash-flow troubles. Amy had to give up her commercial kitchen. She took a job teaching. She didn't have any time to bake, or drive her cookies around, or anything. Bramblewood Cottage, the shortbread cookies, the scones, the dream, the legacy of Nana Kirk, the everything, appeared to be dead.
Until a new Prince Charming stepped into her life. This Prince Charming had the unlikely name of Kowalski's Markets, in the person of Vice President of Perishable Food Operations Terri Bennis. Amy ran into Bennis one day, and told her of a dream she had dreamed, a powerful vision in the middle of the night, in which she had pictured Kowalski's carrying Bramblewood Cottage scones and Bramblewood Cottage shortbread. Bennis became determined to get Amy on her feet again.
"That's what's great about working for an independent [grocery store chain] that's growing," says Bennis. "Since we're a family-owned grocery store, we can make decisions and then actually do something about it. Launching the little guy, that's what it's all about--it's good for us, and it's good for them."
So Bennis introduced Amy to Kowalski's bakery director, Steve Beaird, who made room for her at Kowalski's central bakery in Mahtomedi, putting her on the payroll, giving her access to his magnificent 120-quart commercial mixers, and allowing her to run Bramblewood from inside Kowalski's in such a way that Amy both draws a salary and is again able to sell her shortbreads to Surdyk's and such. So that the dream of Bramblewood is suddenly much stronger and more vital than it ever was. "You can't do anything unless there are people who believe in you," says Amy today.
That the people who believe in her happen to be an innovative little grocery chain doesn't phase Amy: Kowalski's may not be the usual Prince Charming, but then again, the old Prince Charming never offered much in the way of group health or integrated product-distribution services.
"We're not a market-research company," says bakery director Beaird. "We don't need someone else to tell us a product is good, we can just know it's good when we see it. We look at little vendors more like a partnership; they bring something unique to us, and we can help them with what we have. Anyway, there are such low margins in bakery that if you try to do one or two products you'll never cover your overhead or equipment costs."
Today, those one or two products that Amy produces through Bramblewood Cottage can be found at every Kowalksi's, as well as at Cooks of Crocus Hill and the Bibelot Shops, and her scones can be found at a few local coffee shops including St. Paul's Black Dog. I stopped into the White Bear Lake Kowalski's for this story, and got a few packages of her scones and all the flavors of shortbread I could find.
I ended up with half a dozen packages of shortbread cookies, which cost $3.49 for four buttery blocks. I liked them all. The brown sugar one was nothing but flour, butter, brown sugar, and vanilla, and tasted like something you could tuck into your bedside table, and nibble corners of when the going got rough: It was sweet, pure, plain, and humble. The lavender and candied ginger shortbread cries out for a glass of sweet, cold wine and a shaded patio in Provence. The subtle orange one with the chocolate chips seemed like a rare common ground shared between jaded restaurant heads and finicky seven-year-olds. The espresso-chocolate chip (made with real espresso powder) was like a whole coffee break pressed into a tablet.
But I think I like the rosemary shortbread best, because I had one late one night with a glass of a two-day-open, lousy-to-begin-with Côtes-du-Rhone, and suddenly I was enveloped in a world of such complex and fascinating herbaciousness that I knew I could keep a little package of these shortbreads in the cupboard and forever have at my disposal a dessert to impress visiting epicures.
I also tried all three varieties of Bramblewood Cottage's packaged scones, which cost $3.99 for six, and was again impressed. Bramblewood scones are very heavy, very concentrated, and very dense; they look like cubes of food, like something you could take camping, or to sea. They're made of almost nothing but flour, cream, butter, sugar, eggs, baking powder, vanilla, and salt. And, of course, in the case of the currant scones, currants, and in the case of the lemon scones, lemon zest. They taste plain, wholesome, and rich, like a hale and hearty breakfast, if you also happen to be wealthy enough to afford a little butter.
Amy told me that the scones make an amazing base for strawberry shortcake, and I am filing that fact away for summertime use, because it seems immeasurably better than eating those weird yellow sponge-cake cups that pop up each spring in supermarkets like plastic daffodils.
In any event, I found something very satisfying and Scottish in the idea that a rich handmade treat could be had, in two categories, no less, at a price of less than a dollar per portion. And I found something very satisfying and Minnesotan in the idea that they're in local grocery stores, and that they represent triumph over insurmountable odds.
Now that Bramblewood is up and running again, now that Amy is married again, now that she has two stepkids, and now that G-Bug is learning to read, Amy told me she has conjured up a new dream, as any fairy-tale heroine must: "My dream now is for the owner of Walker Shortbread to wake up in the middle of the night and know my name, and tremble."
That name is Bramblewood. It means buttery dreams coming true.
(BRAMBLEWOOD COTTAGE products are available at COOKS OF CROCUS HILL, SURDYK'S, the BIBELOT SHOPS, and KOWALSKI'S MARKETS)
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