Food Chain

Promising signs that Madison's local food scene includes more than just food

We’ve been thinking lately about what’s next for the local food movement in this country, and of course here in Madison. Especially in Madison.

We have hoped that the movement would evolve. We hoped to see a deepening appreciation for not just local food, but for the people behind the food and the strengthening of just supply chains, and to see this extended to relationships with artisans and craftspeople who make the bowls, utensils and tables.

We experienced that depth when visiting our Slow Food friends in Madison’s sister city of Freiburg, Germany, several years ago. It was there that the artisanship of food-making was extended to other artisans, like woodworkers and ceramicists. It felt like a mature system, a maturity that we’re aspiring to here.

A few recent examples in Madison suggest we may be heading in that direction. And we find that promising.

We stopped into Madison Sourdough the other day in its relatively new Williamson Street location, which co-owner David Lohrentz says has been a great success in part because “we are now in a neighborhood where more people are passionate about supporting local businesses.”

Lohrentz and his partner Andrew Hutchison are experimenting with growing a type of wheat to produce flour for their breads that they describe as having a smoother eating quality. The wheat is called Turkey Red and it’s being grown on three local farms from seed Lohrentz brought back from a farmer he discovered growing it in Kansas. The wheat is being milled into Artisan Sifted Wheat Flour by Gilbert Williams at his Lonesome Stone Milling company in Lone Rock.

This has that Freiburg-esque, New York-San Francisco feel to it, though Lohrentz says it’s too early to call it a big growth step yet. “At this point, we just want to try some small-scale experiments to test the viability of growing it, to experiment with the quality of the bread we can bake with it, and to test the consumer demand. It is too early to know if we can consistently get heirloom wheat to grow in Wisconsin, how much lower the yield will be and thus how much higher the cost will be, and how customers will respond to it. It has to work for farmer, miller, baker and consumer. I think it is far too early to know if it will be a big thing or not, but we are thankful that we have some supply chain partners who are willing to work with us on this phase of experimentation.”

That’s the key for us, the supply chain. Making it work for “farmer, miller, baker and consumer” is the expansion of the food system that gives the whole thing roots and makes it sustainable.

Coincidentally, as we were leaving Madison Sourdough we saw Underground Food Collective’s new butcher shop storefront a block down the street. We picked up some ground Fountain Prairie Farms beef and had a great burger that night on a Madison Sourdough roll. A couple of weeks before that we had dinner with some friends at Osteria Papavero and sat at tables owner Francesco Mangano had made by local artist and carpenter Aaron Laux. All signs of growth and new depth of commitment to building a true local food system.

Of course, the success of that system depends on many variables. Lohrentz points out one of his farmers reported some winter kill due to the weather so the “spring growth is a little thinner at this point than is ideal.” Various cost considerations have yet to be fully understood as well. But clearly there is some considerable thought now going into a local food system that is both vital and mature, the genuine article if you will. And that bodes well for the future.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.

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