Where the Wild Yeasts Are
Turtle Bread Company
3421 W. 44th St., Mpls.; 924-6013
Which yardstick you choose to measure yourself by makes a big difference. For instance, sometimes I think: F. Scott Fitzgerald, "This Side of Paradise" published at age 24--success. Me, past 24, no "This Side of Paradise"--big, flaming disaster. Other times I turn on the TV and think: I am not sleeping with my father's boyfriend, nor am I a crack addict who sold my baby for breast implants, so I should get a goddamn civic prize from the city of Minneapolis, I really should. Me with a job and my dishes washed and everything.
Now take Harvey McLain, owner of Turtle Bread Company. He lives, mentally, in a universe populated by the world's best bakers--like the folk in New York at Eli Zabar's Vinegar Factory and Goldberg's Bakery; the people in California who run Gail's Bakery, the Artisan Bakery, and the Berkeley Bakery; Dutch pastry-makers; and, generally, the French. Ask McLain about his breads and he starts reeling off how Turtle Bread does in comparison with these international benchmarks, and he recounts tasting trips he has taken all over the world, often with Turtle Bread's bakers. (They're all off to Paris in February.)
Point out that most restaurants, bakers, and ice-cream makers in town tend to compare themselves only to those local establishments they compete with directly, and McLain screws up his big, lionlike face, narrows his deep-set blue eyes, and asks, with genuine curiosity: "What would be the point of that?" Delve a little deeper and you'll find that Turtle Bread's international standards rest on a bedrock of practical philosophy: "Within most people there is an appreciation of quality," says McLain. "Wasn't it Emerson that said we've got that voice in us telling us what is right, but we just don't know how to listen?
"You know," he continues, "I don't even like that whole cult of the individual chef or owner. It's the product that brings people in, not whoever's back behind the scenes."
That product includes a panoply of baked goods not unlike those Ralph Waldo himself would have subsisted on--made only with organic flour, water, salt, and, depending on the recipe, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, olive oil, fresh rosemary, and the like. McLain has no time for modern junk like the dough softeners, food coloring, corn syrup, or preservatives you find in many breads--even those craggy loaves in fashionable rustic packaging seen in supermarkets. True artisanal bread is made with as little interfering technology as possible: The baker's job is simply to showcase the glories of Mother Nature and the wonders of tradition. This means that bread is reduced to its most basic incarnation; the result often causes a lively quickening in your taste buds, the same elemental response you might have to the warmth of a campfire or the light of the sun.
Probably the best introduction to Turtle breads is a loaf of the germ levain (32 oz., $4.99), a big-tasting, heady bread made with only water, flour, and sea salt. But what flour: Wheat germ is the vitamin-rich layer that lies between the kernel's skin and its pale heart, the endosperm. If you polish the bran and the germ off the endosperm (imagine grinding the peel off an orange with a rock tumbler) and grind up the naked endosperm, you get plain white wheat flour. If you grind up the whole kernel, you get whole wheat flour. But take off the bran and grind up just the germ and the endosperm, and you get that which makes the germ levain.
"Levain" refers to the way the bread was leavened--with wild yeast, captured from the air and kept alive through regular care and feeding. Turtle Bread uses six different types of local wild yeast, each with a distinct flavor.
So to make the germ levain, Turtle takes locally milled, organic, germ-laced flour, adds a bit of salt, some double-filtered water, and a bit of wild yeast, and then lets the yeast do its stuff--eating the natural sugars in the wheat and exhaling carbon dioxide. This process is called proofing, and it's ample proofing time that gives the bread its wheaty taste (unmasked by natural sugars) and beautiful internal lacework of bubbles. Add some sprigs of fresh rosemary and some pitted kalamata olives and you've got the meaty rosemary-olive levain (28 oz. $4.99), a firm, putty-colored loaf with a thick, crisp crust like an animal's living shell--breathing, resilient. Yum.
All Turtle's breads are shaped and moved in and out of the ovens by hand, which prevents their delicate structures from being traumatized and falling, as it does in bread factories when the dough is brutally pulled into shape by machines. Spend some time perusing the pretty baskets in which Turtle stacks its loaves, and you'll find that really, there's not a bad bread in the bunch of nearly 30 kinds that are baked all day. Until about 4 p.m. you can almost always find a hot baguette ($2.99), a beautifully holey wand, translucent when you inspect it close-up, with a crust the color of caramel in the sun.
But Turtle does not live by bread alone. As important as breads are pastries (including a delectable almond-filled croissant ($1.99)), many of which people might recognize from Pam Sherman's late Uptown bakery and café. Sherman is as responsible as anyone for the current state of Twin Cities cuisine--she was one of the founders of the New French Café--and when she opened Turtle Bread with McLain in 1994, she brought her recipes along, as well as her expertise and loyal customers. It's a little unnerving to see Sherman behind the counter making lattes just like anybody else, but "I like creating," she explains. "I don't like managing. And, believe it or not, I actually like cooking."
Pies are the other item Turtle Bread can't make fast enough. They're the province of the assistant head baker, Renae Torgerson, a closed-mouthed, fiercely focused woman who managed to put together about 100 little confectioner's-sugar-topped jam peekaboo cookies in the time it took to tell me how much she hated working in her last baking post at a pricey resort, because everything came premade. "Here you can take pride in what you do," she explains. "You're not pulling it all from a bucket or a case." However, she'll admit this scratch effort can get hectic: Before Thanksgiving she found herself working 18 hours a day trying to put out the 350 to 450 pies a day customers had reserved.
My favorite among the pies is probably the lemon meringue: It has a tart and pungent lemon layer topped with a textbook-perfect sweet and glossy meringue inside a crust so crisp it breaks with a rattle. Turtle's pumpkin pie disproves that joke about how the worst pumpkin pie and the best are very much alike--it's a rich, fluffy thing with a hint of spice to it, the kind of creation I thought only longtime grandmas were capable of. Who else would spend all day on pie, or bread, or even crackers?
In fact, while you're picking up some of Turtle's handmade crackers ($3.75 for six), why not spend some real money? The bakery also carries all sorts of gourmet groceries--precious honeys, jams, chocolates, oils, vinegars, teas, coffees, and such. And while these treats might just be stocking stuffers and once-a-year indulgences for most, McLain points out that quite a few people treat Turtle Bread as their primary grocery. My jaw dropped at this thought, so McLain led me to the front door to see the BMW, Mercedes, and two Porsches parked out front: "That's probably more than my net worth," he said. "I've seen situations here where people send the chauffeur in with the cell phone for five pies."
If you had asked me where the rich shop prior to this eye-opener, I would have guessed Byerly's. Now I know better, but I'm even more confused. Where are they getting their vegetables? À la carte from Manny's? And their toothpaste? Hand-mixed by the lily-white mitts of the Procter & Gamble heirs?
I hate it when the rich and I see eye-to-eye on anything, because it usually means that I'm another step down the enchanting, sylvan path toward bankruptcy. This year that path seems to be paved with addictive Christmas breads like German stollen ($9.95) and Italian panettone ($12.95), as whipped up by Turtle Bread head baker Gregory B. Wayd. Wayd started his Christmas stollen process in August, mixing a brew of whole almonds, currants, two sorts of raisins, candied citron, and brandy, stirring the mess every few days for months and months, finally baking the stollen and slathering it with festive-looking sugar.
After Thanksgiving Wayd started work on his panettone, the buttery, eggy Italian Christmas bread filled with pine nuts, citron, and raisins. Both breads are simple, attractive, compelling in an old-world, old-tradition, seasonal way, and both resist the pitfalls of their thrice-the-price mail-order or department-store counterparts: The stollen isn't too alcoholic, the panettone isn't too dense.
Maybe my deep affection for these breads is based on more than taste, though: Wayd told me a story that makes as good a Christmas fable as any. Four years ago he moved to Minneapolis, where his mom lived, without a job, without a sense of the city, and sick of life in the D.C. beltway, where he had been a baker. His 15th night in town, he had a dream in which a beautiful woman kept repeating, "Everything's going to be OK" while beckoning him toward a big blue lake over which shone the Minneapolis skyline. The next day, Wayd got lost, found himself driving down 44th Street, wondering where he could possibly be. He looked to his left and saw Harvey McLain and Pam Sherman painting the Turtle Bread sign. He walked in, and the years of baguettes and stollen began. A few days later, he was exploring his new work neighborhood when he stumbled onto the shores of Lake Harriet, a few blocks from Turtle Bread. The view of downtown exactly matched the one he'd seen in his dream.
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