"It's a life form. It's intelligent. It has feelings. It's like having a three-month old baby. That's the amazing thing about baking sourdough bread, everyday you make babies. And there's the creation of life that takes place when you mix flour and water and keep it perpetuating. With all your senses, not just your eyes, and eventually you're immersed in the creative energy of it. That's the turn-on, that's why we do it." - Cam Ramsay, Madison Sourdough
The Ramsay Family Business
Since 1994, with a two-year regeneration break, the Ramsay family business has been rising to the top of the sourdough bread business in Madison. In doing so, it is preserving the age-old craft and calling. On a recent visit to their new shop at 6640 Mineral Point Road, Cameron, wife BJ, son Sam and several other staff members were well into their daily baking regimen. Madison Sourdough has kept alive the same sourdough starter for the last 14 years. The starter is a living mixture of flour and water, and it collects yeast from the same air we breathe. It gives each loaf its tangy taste. All of the dough is mixed in their state-of-the-art European equipment then carefully set to rise, for the first time, in a series of temperature and humidity controlled environments.
A Fruitful Journey
Cameron and his family have taken quite a journey to become the classic, vigilant bakers they are today. Some may remember the early days of Madison Sourdough's history when they began baking in the same spot on Willy Street now occupied by RP's Pasta Shop. Eventually, the need for more space caused them to relocate to a custom-built bakery in Middleton, with daughter Mary running the shop. After working seven days a week for years, the decision was made to close their doors and spend time getting to know one another again. Cameron and BJ took full advantage of the break. According to Cameron, "We got back in touch with our kids. Went to California a lot, because there are a lot of bakers out there. Went to New York a lot. I baked in Paris, drummed in Africa, took a lot of wildlife photography. I had a ball, my wife and I had a ball. I did everything I wanted to do." During their two-year hiatus, Cameron worked with authentic bread bakers in Paris, and in the end concluded that baking sourdough bread was still his calling. "Even though I was working a lot, it's not like being in the marketplace. Having a little bit of stress everyday, keeping you going, I like that, so I'm not ready to pack it in yet," he concludes.
Preserving the Art and the Science
Cameron, a passionate, complex individual, embraces the age-old tradition of sourdough bread baking and his mission may be to preserve the art and science of it. In contrast to the time-honored sourdough bread bakers from all over the world, Cameron has strong feelings about the many national sourdough bread companies purportedly using chemically derived methods to obtain the signature sour taste in their sourdough breads. "A lot of your "name and fame" artisans are selling out to big companies...squeezing every artisan everywhere from L.A. to Tallahassee to Albany. The only way this thing's going to stay alive is if we pass it on to families," he says.
The Pinnacle of Food Production
It isn't hard to see that Cameron possesses an intimate understanding of the relationship between the metaphysical and physical aspects of sourdough bread baking. "Sourdough baking is the pinnacle of food production," Cameron professes, "I'm not taking anything away from the chefs or the pastry chefs, but this is the pinnacle of bread production. You've got the science, the philosophy and the spiritual aspect. The American and European artists are the standard. I'm taking flour and water and mixing it together. I'm not putting any drugs or commercial yeast or any steroids or additives in there and I'm taking what nature's given me."
Back in the kitchen, the dough was finished with its first cycle of the rising process and, soft as a baby's cheek, measured squares of the dough were mechanically shaped into baguettes and began, yet again, another rising process in individual, tiny, cotton-lined, wicker bassinettes. Madison Sourdough may use only flour, water and salt in their recipes, but important to note is the flour. Cameron, who has had flour grown and harvested to his own specifications in the past, has very exacting standards for each crop that comes in to the shop. Like grapes for wine, flour can have a very good year or two and then some years are less than ideal. "I use a variety of different flours, some are organic, some not, and I grind my own rye. I used to grind my own wheat. I stopped. I have a certain variety that I've experimented with, grown at certain farms and ground to my specifications," Cameron describes. In fact, Madison Sourdough uses over seven types of flours all from the United States and Cameron works closely with his flour vendors to get exactly what he wants and what will work for his production.
A Good Bloom
When the loaves are finally risen and ready to bake, they are moved by conveyor belt onto the baking surface of the enormous Italian steam-injected oven, a high-tech equivalent of the old wood-burning brick ovens. As Cameron explains about the final steps in which the bloom (the final fermentation that happens in the oven) happens, "If you get a good bloom you get a polarity between color, texture, flavors, layers of different crusts, thickness. So the bloom goes deep. How you score it affects how it blooms which affects the fermentation, which affects the color of the crust, the flavors, the textures." The composite stone deck in the oven transfers heat to the loaf where the final magic of the bread baking occurs. When the bread is finished baking, it is removed with a large wooden paddle that Cameron has constructed himself. (In addition, there are many tables and cabinets he's also crafted throughout the bakery and cafe.)
Manifesting through the Dough
What comes out of the ovens is a superb product: Baguettes, Classic White, Country, Caraway Rye, Cinnamon Raisin, all made and created from Cameron's own recipes but somehow connected to every great baker who has ever mixed flour with water throughout history. Each loaf tells a story and conveys a message that Cameron eloquently sums up as, "You've got the forces of nature. You've got the mother goddess up here. She manifests through the dough. I'm guiding her energy in the middle and you've got the public over here."
Log onto www.madisonsourdough.com and read about Cameron's experiences in Paris as well as a wealth of information about the bread, the history and availability of their products. You can pick up one Madison Sourdough's delicious, nutritious loaves in the Bread Aisle of the Willy Street Co-op.