by Ashley Lodato
Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
photos courtesy of Cow & Clementine
Like many people, Cow & Clementine bakery owner Joe Cowan found himself having trouble digesting wheat. But unlike many people, Joe sought and found a solution. After consulting with his father, the renowned holistic physician Dr. Thomas Cowan, Joe began baking bread using the natural fermentation method outlined in the Tartine Bread book. “My dad said ‘if you prepare bread the real way, your problems may be alleviated,'” says Joe. They were. “My dad turned out to be correct.”
A pathway to eating wheat was not the only thing Dr. Cowan gave Joe. He also gave him a grounding in a philosophy of making food. A founding member of the Weston A. Price Foundation–a pioneer organization for information about nutrition and health–Dr. Cowan specializes in helping people heal through natural medicines and, with his sons, started a business to create and market organic, nutrient-dense vegetable powders. Joe manages operations for the family business, Dr. Cowan’s Garden, and through this work continues to support a tradition of nourishing foods.
In the process of learning how to make a nice sourdough loaf, Joe says, he learned a lot. And “over the years playing with recipes, reading more, and figuring out the basics of dough I got good enough at it to start a business.” Fortuitously, Joe and his wife, Emily Clemetson, had just relocated to Morgantown, West Virginia–an excellent place to open a bakery. Emily, a physician, had recently begun her residency in West Virginia University’s internal medicine program, and Joe was still on active duty with the Marine Corps, which he had joined after college. Joe moved into a space previously occupied by a gluten-free bakery, and Cow & Clementine was launched.
“The place was really easy to move into,” Joe says. “The nuts and bolts were already in place; it was already built to fire code, the ovens were there, and it didn’t need anything structurally.” The building’s owner, says Joe, had a great vision for Morgantown and local business. “It was a really good fit.”
Joe’s business model was somewhat unconventional in the bakery world, but has proven to be quite successful. In addition to operating a retail bakery, Joe also runs a brisk mail order business, which means that customers all over the country can enjoy fresh Cow & Clementine sourdough bread any day of the week. “We cater the recipe for shipping,” Joe says, by ordering whole grains and milling them ourselves. We grind it on one of our stone mills and then we let it ferment overnight before baking it. The fresh-milled grain holds up to the shipping process in a way that fluffy processed flour won’t.”
Joe sources nearly all his grains from Bluebird Grain Farms, about whom he learned through his father. “My dad knew about Bluebird years ago,” Joe says. “When I was starting to bake and didn’t want to use an all-purpose grocery store flour, my dad showed me Bluebird Grain Farms and said ‘this is the one you want to use.'” Joe complements the full flavors of Bluebird’s grains with his wild leaven, which provides a rich and earthy taste to his sourdough breads. “When I moved to Morgantown I lost the previous leaven I had been using,” he says, “but I started a new one as soon as I got here, by mixing flour with water and letting it ferment, and that leaven has been going strong for three years now.”
Joe says that he was drawn to Bluebird because of the variety of grains they grow and the superiority of the product, as well as their farming ethics, which he says are the best in the industry. “I really like the varieties,” he says. “The dispersion of heritage varieties, the hybrids. In the summer I like to use the Pasayten Hard White Wheat, in the winter we use the Methow Hard Red Wheat.” The bakery also features an Emmer loaf, an Einkorn bread, and a Heritage Dark Northern Rye. Joe notes that bakery and mail order bread customers tend to fall into two camps. “People want their bread to be dense and sour, or they want it light and fluffy. Cow & Clementine caters to those two camps.”
For Joe, purchasing whole grains extends the shelf life of his mail-order breads, so they arrive fresh to his customers’ houses. He has a couple of stone mills that he runs continuously for the first hour of each day; milling the grain is not an onerous task. But for most consumers, who can eat or freeze their bread the day they bake it, it makes more sense to purchase Bluebird’s fresh-milled organic flours rather than whole grains.
Cow & Clementine is more than a retail bakery and mail order bread company; it’s also a Morgantown hot spot that hosts art exhibits and occasional events, such as Ikebana classes, tie-dye sessions, and knife skills training. “The space is so large that I am only using 1/4 of it for bread,” Joe says, “so it makes sense to share the space for other purposes. Morgantown is cool and lively. There’s a lot going on here–art walks, farmers’ markets, gallery openings.”
As if a baker’s and a medical resident’s schedules weren’t hectic enough, Joe and Emily added baby George to their family four months ago, prompting Joe to hire another baker to work with him. “We hired and trained Chris while Emily was pregnant,” says Joe, “and it came right down to the wire. He baked his first successful loaf the week before George was born. It takes a long time to understand the nuances of sourdough–there’s barometric pressure that changes bread, and a lot of other variables. You can control the variables, or they can control you and spoil the batch.” With Chris assuming some of the baking duties, Joe can both spend time with George and work on growing Cow & Clementine, as well as continuing his work as board president of the legendary Mountain People’s Co-op.
Long term, Joe would like to decrease his oven-to-doorstep delivery time by opening regional bakery distribution centers. Such centers would also allow him to expand Cow & Clementine’s customer base. He’d also like to start making a sourdough pasta–the way pasta is supposed to be made, he says. “Any grocery store has whole aisles of dry unleavened pasta,” Joe says, “but you’re supposed to ferment it first. It tastes better and keeps longer.” And finally, Joe would like to add even more varieties to Cow & Clementine’s bread repertoire. “That will happen soon,” he says, “it’s just a matter of time.”