Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
Mill City Bread
Minnesota has long had a big stake in America’s breadbasket. Its cultural history is intimately intertwined with General Mills and Pillsbury. It once housed the largest flour mill in the world, the ruins of which now make up part of the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.
So why is it that we aren’t known for great bread?
With so much flour sifting through our atmosphere for so many years, you’d think we’d have channeled our above-average intelligence and creative flow to pioneer a bread culture like none other. Lord knows our ovens are on most of the year anyway. Where’s our Minneapolis sourdough? Why didn’t we refine a North American baguette and stick it to the French? A standard-setting fougasse, a ficelle, a filone? Anyone? Bueller? North Carolina has an artisan bread festival and we don’t. We could have been owning that since, like, 1850!
We might only have ourselves to blame. We are largely head-down Puritans who see our lovely river as a workhorse. We try to get to bed at a decent hour. Back in the day, flour was an industry and a commodity. Eventually, we just bought our cellophaned loaves at the supermarket, and that was that.
Thankfully, a few independent bakeries survived, and in the past few years the artisan food boom has rekindled our desire for freshly baked bread. Rustica Bakery stood alone for many years as the artisan bread bastion of our area while, frustratingly, Saveur and Food & Wine compiled lists of best bakeries that were East Coast–centric. It burns my toast that we don’t own this situation.
But Rustica’s Steve Horton has decided to do something about it by opening Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in the Food Building in Northeast. It’s the first new flour mill in the city limits in decades (thanks to that pesky explosion in 1878 and the regulations that followed thereafter). Locally, milling operations have been owned by big companies, but there are a few, like Sunrise Flour Mill in North Branch, who believe small owners can bring back the artisan tradition of milling. Horton is a modern miller, and probably our best bet if we’re ever going to claim a Mill City bread culture (no pressure!).
At Baker’s Field, regional grains are milled to bake naturally leavened breads. The baker/millers work with local farmers to ensure the grains are unique and raised in a sustainable and organic manner. The flour is freshly milled a day before baking the breads, allowing the wild yeasts of our area to impart a slightly tangy quality (though they shy away from calling it sourdough).
The resulting loaves are stunning, brown sturdy breads that have a touch of elegance and a lot of flavor. The Filone is a baguette-shaped beauty with a great crust and lighter chew. The Hundred bread is made from rye and has a rich density and hefty texture with a fuller sour note. Pan bread is similar to a brioche in texture, and Table is a great everyday sandwich bread light on the sour flavor. You can find these breads at the Mill City Farmers Market, area co-ops, and available for test-drive on sandwiches at The Draft Horse pub in the Food Building.
Baker’s Field flour is being sold to area restaurants along with bakery burger buns, which I predict will soon be pedigreed on menus around town (“on a Baker’s Field bun”) for their soft yet substantial quality. More importantly, the artisan flour can be bought by you, the home baker, so that you can experiment and learn what fresh flour from local grains is like. If we all get out there and start baking like this again, I truly believe our Mill City bread culture will finally rise.