"I was pen pals with Jeff Ford [of Cress Spring Bakery] when I lived in Paris," says Karin Huelsman of the Baker's Window on State Street. "When we opened, he brought us butter as a gift."
Huelsman arrived in Madison with her husband, Brian Martinez, via the famed Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. She makes pastry and he bakes bread.
"We contacted Jeff when we were thinking about moving to Madison," Huelsman explains. "I already knew about his oven."
Ford, known nationally for his bread and his wood-fired brick oven, originally designed and built it with Alan Scott. Before his death in 2009, Scott led the revival of the traditional communal oven in the U.S., refining old technologies and making oven design plans available to both professional and amateur bakers.
Ford has also been a longtime mentor to Sarah "Biggie" Lemke, formerly of Naked Elm Bakery in Blue Mounds (which, sadly, closed this spring), as well as an important inspiration for Mary White, who runs the CSA-style bread share bakery Honey Bee. And like Ford, Huelsman, Lemke and White all believe in using organic flour sourced as locally as possible. Lemke grinds her own, while Baker's Window currently sources organic from Heartland Mill in Wichita, Kan.
It should be noted that local, organic grain availability in Madison remains extremely limited. In a few of its loaves, Madison Sourdough uses Wisconsin's own Lonesome Stone Mill flour sourced from farms near the mill in Lone Rock.
For Huelsman and Martinez, Jeff Ford is a vital link between the land, noncommercial grains and a wider urban food movement. Through their work at Baker's Window, they dream of participating in nothing short of a total urban artisanal renaissance.
The couple are forthcoming and enthusiastic regarding their goal to reshape how Madison eats. They want to create a bakery that inspires community.
"On our first date we started talking about Michael Pollan and his book The Omnivore's Dilemma," says Huelsman. "And from there we came to realize we wanted to spend all of our time cooking together," continues Martinez.
This clear vision led the couple to decamp to France as Martinez transitioned out of the legal field and began baking in earnest.
While they were abroad, a quintessential French food moment helped coalesce their desire to return to the States and bring "slow food" momentum with them: "We were staying in this old house outside of Paris, and one afternoon Brian's uncle starts yelling with excitement," recalls Huelsman. "We're thinking maybe he needs help or something. But, no, he comes charging through the house exclaiming 'The peach is ready! This peach is ready! Right now! It's perfect!'"
That kind of attention to ripening fruit encapsulates what Huelsman and Martinez hope to accomplish with an open window into their own bakery on State Street.
"We want people to see the ingredients, see the labor. We wanted to create this urban kitchen that gets people excited about things that take a lot of time," says Huelsman, "and with it support another kind of economy, another way of being."
Martinez agrees: "It's really also about owning the means of production. Jobs are on everyone's mind, and the problem in the past has been everyone taking these sedentary, economically tertiary jobs. We need to get back to handmade goods."
Response to Baker's Window has been overwhelming. "I had no idea we'd have customers from all over the world here who appreciate the quality," admits Martinez.
In addition, they've discovered a preexisting Wisconsin connection between good food and hard work. Huelsman says, "We get all sorts of stories of people who remember their mothers or grandmothers doing the kind of baking we're doing. And they support us because they know what it takes."
To put in your bag: Huelsman is a pastry-crust genius. Must-haves include the quiches, the lovable sacs de baies (literally translated as "a sac of berries") and über-delicious apple pie. Martinez's sourdough loaves are elegant with a rewardingly thick crust.
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Lonesome Stone Mill is based in Lone Rock.]