From the most basic ingredients — flour, salt, starter and water — bakers create wonders.
Whether it’s the decadent pastry that sweetens the sour of an early-morning rise, the cakes that become centerpieces of our celebrations, the anytime indulgences that carry us through the day, or the still-warm loaves so tempting we tear off a hunk before the unadorned bread even makes it home.
It all begins with age-old essentials, and the transformative potential of skill and craft that baking’s practitioners have honed for more than 30,000 years.
In the Flathead Valley these days, bakers are transforming more than just their ingredients as a bakery boom gets underway, with more small, independent businesses recasting properties into neighborhood hubs in the way only bakeries can — creating that place for the quick stop, the long linger, the daily ritual.
The region’s rising batch of bakeries is varied in style and scale. Many double as cafés with breakfast and lunch menus, and a few are even roving, billing themselves as “microbakeries” and peddling their goods at markets.
Such was the case of Finn Biscuit owner Terri Feury, a longtime, classically trained baker who for 16 years toiled in the back of the brick-and-mortar building she owns in downtown Columbia Falls while renting out the front as retail space. It was a favorite local secret, and when the fresh baked goods were ready for purchase, a wooden mannequin named Julia would strike a pose outside on the sidewalk, beckoning to passersby that the day’s bounty of small-batch breads and buns were ready for sale.
Feury found success selling those croissants, breads and pastries out of the back of the building and at area stores and farmers markets, but she always wanted to take her business to the next level.
In 2016, with the opening of Uptown Hearth, she did just that. The microbakery and food studio in downtown Columbia Falls is now serving delectable baked goods during the week and hearty breakfasts on the weekend, alongside artisan coffees.
Feury built out and remodeled the space to offer an expanded kitchen, comfortable seating, gleaming overhead fixtures and ovens, as well as a team of passionate culinary and coffee experts. Chefs Catherine Olsen and Johnny Alamilla tender a full breakfast menu, while featured baker Kendra Hope from Meadowlark Microbakery bakes artisan breads and European-style pastries. Barista Matthew Bussard offers specialty coffees from around the world, slinging his signature Cortados from his custom coffee cart, and Feury, along with baker Jane Dalton, churn out organic handcrafted pastries and hearth breads, adhering to her traditional roots.
“Even though we have expanded we are very much still a small-batch, hands-on microbakery,” Feury said. “And that is a great term. I loved it when it came into use. I didn’t like the term artisan. As a craft-maker using old-world techniques and recipes, I thought it was too elite.”
Not surprisingly, one of Feury’s earliest memories is of baking, and it served as the inspiration for the name of her first baking enterprise, the Finn Biscuit, after her grandmother’s delicacy.
“My grandmother had a dough trough to knead the bread and she used leftover potato water that was very starchy and lovely,” Feury said. “She would make Finn biscuits which are almost like a cardamom tea cake. They’re not too sweet and they are perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. She brushed them with strong coffee and sprinkled a little sugar and that was the glaze. It’s very simple but time consuming.”
Like her grandmother, Feury never rushes the baking process.
While many bakeries use extra yeast to get dough to rise quickly, Feury prefers an older method of baking that allows the dough to rise for two or three days, requiring a rarefied brand of patience from customers in an age accustomed to instant gratification. A small batch consisting of 20 loaves of breads takes up to 25 hours because of the multi-tiered fermentation process she uses.
And while the Flathead Valley might not be in the midst of a bona fide artisan-bakery boom on the same scale as a Portland or San Francisco, its relative glut of boulangeries continue to gain popularity, in keeping with a broader trend.
Indeed, microbakeries have managed to withstand globalization and mass production by continuing to produce quality breads, pastries and cakes.
It’s a process steeped in history that may seem increasingly anomalous in a world of fast food and microwave meals, but amidst the buy-local, farm-to-table movement, artisan bread is a perfect fit, even if it hasn’t altogether escaped the foils of the internet in an on-demand era.
For example, #ArtisanBread on Instagram has nearly 220,000 posts, not to mention other popular, searchable hashtags (#justbaked, #breakingbread and #loafingaround) and hundreds of YouTube videos and blogs dedicated to the topic.
But if sharing the fruits of 200-year-old sourdough starters on social media means keeping the tradition alive, so be it.
“I’m heartened to see younger generations taking interest in the craft, especially because I am no spring chicken,” Feury, who trained under two internationally known master bakers, said. “It’s a rich tradition and to be surrounded by people who care about every stage of food production is wonderful.”
One year ago in Whitefish, for example, 28-year-old Whitney Brien opened Fleur Bake Shop on Spokane Avenue, having graduated in 2012 from L’Art du Gateau program at The French Pastry School in Chicago, where she developed a strong passion for the craft.
“It was there that I realized that baking and making pastries was my true calling,” Brien said.
Brien worked in Colorado and Portland prior to landing in Whitefish, where she offers canneles, macarons, madeleines and tartlets on a menu teeming with other tasty treats.
Even though most bakeries are prominently located in downtown corridors, off-the-beaten-path baked goods sometimes taste the best.
At the Polebridge Mercantile, a remote outpost offering its famed huckleberry bearclaws on the western edge of Glacier National Park, owner Will Hammerquist inherited recipes passed down through the generations as the historic Merc has changed hands.
Since purchasing the Merc in 2014, Hammerquist has had his hands full keeping up with building improvements, but his first order of business prior to taking over the century-old institution was, appropriately, learning to properly flip a pan of sticky buns.
“It’s tradition,” Hammerquist said. “It wouldn’t be the same without the bakery.”
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