As his partner Gerry Betz likes to remind him (rather teasingly and usually in the middle of the busiest pre-market nights when sleep is in short supply), Larry Lowary is a man who is living his dream.
A journalist by trade (he is a graduate of the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri), he came rather late to baking despite the fact that his grandfather was a baker. Growing up in Chicago, he spent a big part of his childhood in and around bakeries and even though he loved journalism to the point of once acquiring and running his own newspaper (The Big Timber Pioneer) in the town of Big Timber, Montana, ultimately when his passion for reporting started to subside and he began looking for a profession that would bring him back to the basics and allow him to actually make a product that people would come and buy, he saw himself at work in his own bakery baking bread.
Today the dream has come true. So much so that life is a bit hectic during the baking months of the year. But that's in part because Larry brings to his new profession the same curiosity that drove him to the old one: he is constantly on the lookout for new tastes, new techniques, new recipes, new master bakers.
Endearingly, like many bakers I have met and despite years of experience, Larry doesn't think he knows best: every day brings opportunities for learning, whereas from books (he has all the books I covet and more), from baking classes and fellow students (as I could see first hand when I met him at a San Francisco Baking Institute weeklong workshop) or from tasting trips (what he and Gerry call "tasty travels"). The result is that he is never bored (except by repetitive tasks that no longer offer a challenge) and, more importantly, neither are his customers who flock to the Saturday Bayview Farmers' Market where he and Gerry have been selling their baked goods from May to October since 2007. Larry bakes the bread and Gerry makes the cakes (he's a pastry chef).
Now how did Larry get from Big Timber, Montana to Whidbey Island, Washington? Well, by the time he decided to become a baker, he was working in Oakland, California. He took his training at the Dunwoody Industrial Institute in Minneapolis, then a trading school for bakers underwritten by General Mills, today Dunwoody College of Technology. As luck would have it, Gerry, a native Californian, had trained at the same school, albeit years before. A baking convention coincided with a class reunion. They met. After a stint working together for a German baker in San Francisco, they hit the road in the best American tradition and explored their options. The trip took them from California to the Southwest then back north to the Midwest and finally to Seattle where they settled and worked for several years as bakery managers in an upscale family-operated grocery store. At one point, they bought what they thought would be a weekend house on Whidbey Island and started spending their free time there.
But the lure of island life proved irresistible. After some extensive and much necessary remodeling, they moved in. They had a building built on the property. A couple of years later, an oven was put in and they started to bake for the market. The rest is history.
Now I said Larry was living his dream. But did I mention that he does so in a place that many bakers can only dream of? For those of you who live a world away or are just unfamiliar with the Puget Sound area, let me take you on a short trip: coming from Seattle, the shortest way to get to Whidbey is on a ferry.
A short crossing and a maze of tree-lined country roads later...
...you are at Tree-Top Baking.
First go in and visit the bakery , then check out its website. Like me, you'll probably be amazed at the impressive array of baked goods Larry and Gerry manage to produce each week in such a small space.
Last time I was there they were recuperating from a market day where they had sold most of the 728 items they had brought with them, including more than 200 loaves of bread: Bayview baguettes, seeded baguettes, herb pain rustique, challah, white chocolate orange viennois, five-seed multigrain, Genzano bread, flaxseed rye, cracked wheat sourdough, buckwheat baton, barbecue buns, etc. (see complete list).
As we all know, baking is hard work involving long hours, short nights and back-breaking chores. Artisan bakers are usually not in it for the money. Larry and Gerry are no exceptions. In-between market days and during the winter months, they take in orders for various private customers, coffee-shops and restaurants. They deliver each week a large number of muffins, scones and cookies and other pastries as well as the occasional festive cupcake, not to mention wedding cakes. Sometimes they get tired. They'd like to be able to go away more, to have a more normal life but as Gerry put it, if we stop doing it, then these families and businesses would have no choice but to opt for buying, freezing and reheating warehouse baking products. They see their work as contributing to the quality of life on the island. I couldn't agree more. I like bakers with a social conscience...
Now I have tasted many of Larry's breads and fell in love with more than one, including his sprouted wheat or spelt breads which are to die for. But the one I would like to showcase this time is his intriguing Buckwheat Baton.