Sally Reimer and Harmony Bork of Renaissance Bread and Pastries.
Early morning in Galesville, Wisconsin. It’s already well into the workday for Harmony Bork and Sally Reimer, the two sisters who own Renaissance Breads and Pastries. The windows are still dark, the sun isn’t up yet. It’s a cold, mid-winter morning, but the bakery is warm with the oven having been on for hours. Sally shapes the dough into loaves, talking as she works. Harmony’s shift is already over and she stands back and watches Sally. They finish each other’s sentences and talk over each other as I ask them about their work.
They’ve owned the bakery for 10 years. It’s a family affair—their sister Corrie drives delivery. Harmony, the older sister, has the early shift. She comes in every day and makes the dough and does prep work for Sally, who arrives shortly before 5 a.m. Harmony had previously been a line cook at the Trempealeau Hotel, and in spite of the 2 a.m. work shift, she says it beats grill cooking when a tour bus rolls in with 200 people.
“Baking is kind of therapeutic,” Harmony says.
They grew up on a farm near Ettrick, Wisconsin. “I was the early chore kid,” Harmony says. And she still is.
“We were baking when we were kids,” Harmony remembers.
“We made buns, rolls—those rye crackers Mom used to make—” Sally says.
“Oh, those were great,” Harmony says. “We made pasta!”
They credit their mother, Nan, with teaching them the love of baking and cooking.
Their sourdoughs, rye and whole wheat, are their most popular items. But they sell a lot of seven-grain loaves as well.
“We’ve got a new one, a cranberry-pecan that’s flying off the shelves,” Sally says.
“People like that one,” Harmony agrees. They do 25 varieties of bread altogether—all of them organic and many of them seasonal breads. Harmony recommends her favorite, the Mexicali sourdough, though it’s not available year-round.
They’ve had success getting their breads into new markets, but when opportunity came to sell to a store in Madison, they turned it down. They don’t want to grow too big.
“We don’t want to compromise,” Harmony says. “If you do too much you have to cut corners.
In addition to People’s Food Co-op in Rochester and La Crosse, you’ll find them selling at the Saturday farmers’ market in Winona, Minnesota. They value the opportunity to meet customers and gather feedback on their breads. Although the bakery is on the square in Galesville, they do not have a storefront. So don’t expect to show up and get it hot from the oven.
Renaissance is strictly organic. They’re careful about additives, using honey or molasses, but never sugar. Every loaf is hand-shaped.
During the course of our conversation, Sally continually runs to the oven to rearrange loaves. Every 10 minutes or so, she explains, the bread has to be shifted around. It’s an old oven and some spots are hotter than others. So, it’s not likely that Sally could put the bread in and run off to the grocery for an hour, or lie down for a nap. The oven takes continual attention. The oven’s maker is “Blodget,” but they don’t call it anything other than “the oven.” They don’t appear to hold any grudge against the machine that holds tyranny over their time, though they like the idea of renaming the oven Blodget.
The sourdough starts to snap and pop, like seeds roasted on a stove skillet.
“That’s the sound of ‘happy sourdough,’” Sally says, although she insists she doesn’t get attached to any one of the loaves.
We break out the butter and knives and cut into a fresh loaf. The sourdough rye has a dark, rich flavor. It reminds me of bread I’ve had in Germany. “That’s our German coming out,” Harmony says. “It’s really good with a sharp cheddar in a grilled cheese.”
“It’s a sustaining bread,” Sally notes. “This is a staple in most people’s lives and it should be healthy and delicious.”
The interview started before sunrise and now it’s mid-morning. Sunlight pours in through the east windows on the cold winter’s morning. The bakery is toasty warm. Despite Blodget’s dubious reputation, it’s still a 475º F oven. During summer the heat would be less cozy, but there are worse jobs in the world. The 2 a.m. start time is daunting though.
“It’s not so bad,” Harmony says. “I have a cup of coffee. I turn on the radio, but not too loud to wake the neighbors. We haven’t tried experimenting with music to see if the sourdough would respond. We wouldn’t play any angry music. Maybe it would affect the bread.”
“We don’t listen to the news anymore. We don’t want any negativity,” Sally says.
“I did hear a year-end news round-up,” Harmony says. “Did nothing good happen last year? Our hearts go into this bread. And that’s our secret. The secret is the love you put into your food.”
Care and feeding of your loaf
|Sourdough bread dough waiting patiently for baking.||Sally kneads the dough briefly, shaping it into form.||The bread takes a break on its “couch” after kneading.|
Sally scores the top of each loaf with a razor. This will give the finished bread an even-centered split.
||The loaves are eased into the hot oven with a baker’s peel (handmade by Sally’s brother).||Finished sourdough loaves coming out of the oven.|
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Co-op Shopper.