This is special, and it’s here.
Just north of Blue Mounds, a little gem is nestled into the undulating hills of Vermont, Wisconsin. Jeff Ford says that no matter where in the world he visits or lives, the driftless feels like home in a deeply resonant way he hasn’t experienced anywhere else. Driving out to the farm where he has lived and baked for twenty-three years, it’s not hard to imagine why he feels this way. As you wind your way past modest farmhouses, foxes darting into the woods, past rivulets and onto the occasional road-sans-road-sign, one would never guess you are about to arrive at a bakery where the world-class bread and its baker has gained accolades from the likes of The New York Times.
Jeff, through Cress Spring Bakery, has been a quiet leader in the locavore movement since before that was a “thing”, but looking back, he probably couldn’t have foreseen this trajectory in his life. When you meet him at his weekly stand at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, looking zen behind racks or gorgeous bread and pastries, you wouldn’t think to yourself “Ah, he’s an accountant of course!” Unlikely as it sounds, after five years of schooling for accounting, his lifelong foray into baking began with a somewhat accidental stint as the financial manager for Nature’s Bakery in the famous Williamson Street neighborhood of Madison.
He learned the ropes of running a full-scale production bakery in his six years with Nature’s Bakery, but when the opportunity arrived in 1995 to build an experimental wood-fired oven on a cooperative farm in Blue Mounds, it gave Ford the chance to dig deeper into a growing passion: naturally fermented sourdough breads.
While attending a bread conference in California, he spent a day working with a wood fired oven and he was hooked. Not only did it serve a self-confessed tendency towards pyromania and doing things the hardest way possible, but it produced exactly the kind of bread he wanted to eat. The hearty wholesomeness, the unique zing, the chewy, dark crust, the authenticity of the wild yeast- it was bread hardly anyone was creating in our industrialized food world, and especially not in the Midwest. And it’s no wonder, really – this type of baking isn’t just a job or a hobby. To make a living at it as owner and baker is an all-consuming lifestyle.
To learn, for example, how much and what kind of wood to use, when to start the fire, what loaves need to go in first and how to monitor and utilize the ever changing temperatures over hours and days; the intricacies of working with this living organism of an oven. Jeff said there was really a two year learning curve when it came to using the oven, and on top of that finding a business model that works for a rural, labor-intensive enterprise with a product that wasn’t trendy yet. After a few years flailing through the brutal world of wholesale, they started a bread home-delivery service, cut out most of their wholesale locations and mainly sold through farmers markets. This meant much of their bread was sold before it was baked and cut back dramatically on waste while giving them the opportunity to connect more with their customers and form relationships that have now spanned decades. His customers are delighted to have access to a line of cookies, pastries and breads made with nearly all local and organic ingredients. On top of that, the sourdough fermentation process and the variety of fresh, quality grains he uses, makes his products more easily digestible to many people who have difficulty digesting conventional bread and wheat.
One of the main principles of the bakery is to support other local businesses and farms through sourcing. Remarkably, Ford has been able to source 100% of his wheat from local farmers in recent years, and even in the beginning when it was incredibly hard to come by, he found a way to get nearly all of his grain from local growers. There are still a few things he has to buy in from out-of-state producers (salt, chocolate, and Kamut, a certain variety of grain, for example), but part of his weekly routine at the farmers market is shopping for many of the ingredients his bakes feature throughout the changing seasons- strawberries, rhubarb and blueberries for his popular thumbprint cookies for example. Pumpkins, potatoes, sunflower oil, maple syrup and cranberries are a few other things you might see him load into his truck at the end of market days.
I asked Ford what the best part about his work was. “The best part is that there isn’t really a best part,” he explained, “I get to do something different every day.” And he really does. Accounting, milling his own flour, cutting all his firewood, mixing doughs- each of these is challenging and rewarding enough to keep daily life meaningful, though he says working at the market is probably the most joyful and rewarding part of his week. He gets to see a weeks worth of work finally converted to cash and see some of the many friends and customers he has gained in his many years here.
He jokes that he does everything the hardest way possible, but there’s a lot of truth to the fact that it takes extra effort to live and bake this way. “Baking is challenging, mentally and physically… and we don’t take shortcuts. We mill our own flour, cut our own wood,” he says, allaying the romantic ideas many folks have of his baking, “It’s not magic, it’s hard work.” Hard enough that Ford has seen found ways to navigate the stress. In early 2019, he wrote a heartfelt update to his many customers and fans, explaining the need to cut back on his product list and simplify his life. Even so, he continues to contribute to the region in what he knows to be important ways: supporting local farmers and rural business, and providing a high-quality product that is truly one of a kind. Here in the Driftless, we are lucky to count Cress Spring Bakery among our many treasures.
Cress Spring Bakery
4035 Ryan Road
Blue Mounds, WI 53517
By Lydia Jones