Driftless Terroir: The Lovely Practice of Connecting Through Dough

Odessa Piper

by Odessa Piper

Landing at Boston’s Logan airport from Wisconsin last March, I had a premonition I would not be back in the Driftless any time soon.  Just a week earlier I had been working with Taliesin Preservation’s Riverview Terrace Cafe chef Sandra Purnell, obsessing over creating a perfect hamburger bun for our cafe. The bun we envisioned would have to be light as a zephyr; something readily done with 100 percent white flour, but we wanted to include whole-grain flour grown and milled at a neighboring farm, Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway. 

Before working with Meadowlark, I didn’t have a clue what “bolted flour” meant. Sandra and I would learn this and much more as we teamed up at the cafe to create a learning environment for our eagerly awaited Food Artisan Immersion students. It came with the territory that learning would go every direction. Every time I thought we had perfected the bun, Sandra found another step that could be better written to avoid tripping up a novice baker.  

And the bolted flour? Turns out it is a miller’s expression meaning some of the bran is sifted out of the flour to lighten it. Ah, but what happens to the grain that remains? Halee and John Wepking of Meadowlark employ a patient art of stone milling to ensure that most of the rich oils that carry flavor remain in the flour. Their bolted flour is like nothing I had every worked with before. The remaining bran is so finely ground that the flour becomes the color of freshly churned butter. It even felt like powdered cream when I gripped a handful of it from the bag. In the hands of great bakers like Madison’s Origin Breads and Madison Sourdough, these flours render loaves with creamy, chewy crusts that remind me of the best hearth breads of Poilâne and Kayser in Paris. I was inspired to learn everything I could and dreamed of making a version for Taliesin with our students.

Artisanal flours are able to express terroir (a French expression for “taste of place”) when partnered with naturally occurring microbes that arrive on the grains from the meadows. Encourage these microbes to multiply into a starter and they will flavor and leaven the dough. Sourdough baking is an art of patience, observation and touch. Back when I was chef proprietor of L’Etoile, making sourdough challenged my hopelessly over-extended life. But as the days and weeks of quarantine began to roll together in Boston, it was clear I wasn’t getting on planes or running restaurants anymore. Freed from the miasma of interruptions I had time to watch things unfold, like the wild crabapple tree in my backyard transforming from winter barren twigs to spring green to an extravagance of pink tinged blossoms. And now as I write, into little red apples. Before COVID-19, I was too distracted to notice the daily barely perceptible changes of a green apple beginning to blush to red. Now I am learning a profound lesson: that every day is a season.

With no trips to Taliesin in the foreseeable future I had no more excuses to making my own sourdough. I got a bit of “starter” from a friend and ordered in a slew of flours from Meadowlark. I added their rye to my flour mix for daily feeding because rye flour is especially friendly to beneficial microbes. I proceeded to fret over my starter’s formative days like a parent hovering over a peckish child. I could have obtained excellent flours from grains grown in New England, but I wanted this project to link me to my Wisconsin friends. I was also eagerly anticipating testing other recipes for Taliesin using Meadowlark’s grains. And if we get right down to it, I wanted to keep my intimate connection to Wisconsin by cultivating a little bit of Driftless terroir in my home kitchen. 

Sourdough is a working practice of craft, synergy, taste and place. These were the same principals we wanted to share with the Food Artisan Immersion Program participants who would start arriving at Taliesin in May for their quarantine. Back in March our team was feeling the good kind of panic that accompanies the pre-launch of Taliesin Preservation’s season. But as April turned to May a different level of uncertainty began to creep in. With every new bulletin about the pandemic upending our world we asked would our students even be able to come? While we all quarantined and waited to find out what would happen, it was a comfort to worry about the microbial civilizations rising and falling on a daily basis in my sourdough starter. 

It took a couple of weeks of trial and error for my sourdough starter to find its legs so I could start making real bread. To my delight my mighty microbial creation lifted 1 kilogram of flour and water into a bouncing dough with open lacework of large holes and crackling crust. Add salt and that’s your recipe, folks! Well, maybe not quite that simple. Time and temperature wield magic and maddening powers when it comes to bread. Get it right, and microbe, grain and human achieve something that transports us to a world of living ideas that connect to joy and culture. Get it wrong … well … butter fixes everything. The students will like this, I thought.

Summer is turning to fall now, and I remain locked down in Boston. The students did arrive and they did learn how to master that marvelous bun under Chef Sandra’s watchful eye. Turns out it wasn’t my difficult recipes, but COVID-19 that tripped up our best-laid plans. Across the nation, COVID has catastrophically disrupted the food service industry and we were not spared. Though the tours and Food Artisan Program are continuing, Taliesin Preservation had to make a difficult decision in August to close the cafe.

In this new landscape, the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center and gift shop remains open and tours employ careful physical distancing and smaller groups. And I am teaching Taliesin’s Food Artisans via Google hangouts and Zoom. Even in these difficult times we are keeping the life of Taliesin’s ideas, its spirit of inquiry and community going strong. In earlier times Wright’s students traditionally made bread for the Taliesin community. I’m thinking that our cross-country sourdough experiments may revive this lovely practice. This Driftless terroir we share will keep us connected through the annually renewing cycles of this beautiful estate, and together in these difficult times.

Odessa Piper is the founder of L’Etoile, a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant in Madison that she established in 1976 and ran for 30 years. Now resettled in her native New England with her husband, the wine importer Terry Theise, she maintains close ties to the Driftless Region as the developer of the Food Artisan Immersion Program for Taliesin Preservation at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin.