From a certain perspective, Warrenton, Virginia (population 9,735 in 2011) is the ideal of a Piedmont Virginia town. Its revitalized historic storefronts teem with cafés and antique stores. It’s perched up on a hilltop with the picturesque Blue Ridge mountains off in the distance. But more importantly, Warrenton sits right smack dab in the middle of a region undergoing a major local farming rebirth, with small farms, markets and producers close by in every direction.
That fact makes it particularly convenient for one of the town’s newest stars, the Red Truck Bakery, to locally source a great many of the ingredients that go into its array of concoctions. Whether it’s the peaches and blackberries in a daily pie special, the cherries in a chocolate & cherry cookie, the liquor that spices up many of their cakes, or the chicken in the soup, at the baked-goods laboratory that is Red Truck, they like it local.
Now, a lot has been said and written about this place. From reviews in the New York Times and Esquire to Splendid Table and The Travel Channel (who proclaims Red Truck’s the “best granola in North America”), there seems to be a staggeringly coherent national consensus that this tiny bakery in little old Warrenton is on to something big. In fact, the former service-station-turned-café is so in-demand by the media spotlight that I had to plan my visit between TV interview filmings.
It’s tempting to speculate that much of this attention and praise is due to the fact that the owner/founder and head baker, Brian Noyes, is a well-connected individual. As the former art director for magazines like Smithsonian, House and Garden, and Washington Post Magazine, it’s easy to imagine how Red Truck may have had bigger advantages in the PR department than your average bakery.
So, after having read numerous glowing descriptions of their baked goods online, you could forgive me for being a little skeptical. There are certainly many other bakeries out there worthy of praise. But however baker Noyes got the attention, I can verify that Red Truck deserves the spotlight. Noyes attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson River Valley and L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, and the acclamation is deserved. When I went myself to see what all the fuss was about on a sunny Monday afternoon this past August, I somehow ended up staying for almost two hours chatting with staff and other visitors and nibbling on my lunch at their hefty, communal farm table.
The bakery itself is very small (it’s in a converted gas station after all) so when you go in, you aren’t really overwhelmed by a cornucopian explosion of sights and smells. There is actually a limited selection of cookies, pies, sandwiches, and breads at any given time. But this is actually a good thing for a bakery that wants what it makes to be fresh and to sell out – something Red Truck seems to achieve on a daily basis.
After I first entered and thoroughly examined all the cases and coolers and asked a few (locally) pointed questions, I picked out a modest lunch that seemed to represent a decent cross section of the menu that was made from local, in-season food: a curry chicken salad sandwich and a cup of corn, sausage, and chicken soup. Once I sank my teeth into the rather unassuming curry chicken salad sandwich, I realized I was in good hands. At first appraisal, the recipe resembles that of any traditional yellow chicken curry salad. But once you swallow, you notice that the flavors are toned down and reshuffled; inverted to the point where the turmeric and cumin wander off like ghosts before you’re even really aware of them.
Lunch, for many of us, isn’t a meal to which we bring out the big guns. For me, in particular, it’s rare for a sandwich of any kind to really elicit much more than a satisfied belch. But when I slowed down and realized how good this thing was, I sat up straight. And then I surrendered and reveled as the fresh white grapes burst in my mouth amid the mingling of spices and tender chicken. Befitting a daily bakery, the sliced bread holding the sandwich was fresh, chewy and just a little crusty. But it was a confident, disinterested, and mature bread that didn’t even try to distract from the real star of the show: the chicken salad.
From there, it was the soup’s turn to try and dazzle me. The corn, chicken, and sausage chowder was, at first, a little disappointing in the flavor department. Sadly coming down from the chicken-curry high, I ripped off a piece of the focaccia that came with the soup and dipped it in the thick chowder before popping it in my mouth. Oh my! It seemed that I had only been getting half the picture. That focaccia sang! Not in a tenor but in a high, angelic soprano. It’s rosemary and sea salt flavor seemed to be suspended magically over its airy, refined structure. I realized that the chowder was merely the accompaniment; the passenger. Once the chowder had its driver, its own subtle flavors finally came into focus.
After relishing every last crumb of that focaccia and carefully measuring out the remainder of the chowder to fully savor the glory of the combination, I contemplated going and getting a whole loaf of the focaccia to bring home. But as I was greedily eyeing the bread basket, I glanced in the display case and beheld something even better: the apparition of a giant cherry, chocolate, and almond cookie. That cookie was not destined to be long for this earth and as it rapidly evaporated in my mouth, I remember thinking that it was surprisingly moist. But that’s about all I can tell you about it other than the fact that it was good. Next time, I’ll slow down and take notes. Sorry.
So: three for three, Red Truck. And there was a bounty of things I didn’t try, not least of which was the double-chocolate Moonshine Cake made from a local hooch (corn moonshine). I did add to the calorie intake with a pretty phenomenal orange cranberry muffin though. It was moist in all the right places with a buttery, sugary, walnut-y crust cut through with gently acidic little chunks of cranberry and orange.
OK, so I liked the place. I know: big surprise. But how does the place stack up in the local food category?
The ingredients in the curry powder obviously weren’t local and the staff informed that the most of the bakery’s flour was from New England – only a little far afield, really. Regardless, it was clear that the bakers really do enjoy improvising with whatever the seasons have to offer. In a region where orchards, farmers markets, wineries, cheesemakers and apiaries are in full bloom, there seems no end to the variety of one-of-a-kind breads and desserts they can craft. I was told that beyond the local fruit selection, the bakery sources chickens, eggs, and cheese locally and even roasts its own locally raised chickens every day.
And even though there were slim baked-good pickings by lunch time on the day I visited, the bakery has an impressively broad menu, some of which is entirely seasonal and, thus, in high demand. We’re talking about pecan pies, sweet potato pies, pumpkin pies, jams, coffee cake, granola, ham and cheese sandwiches, rum cakes, bourbon cakes, Guinness stout cakes, mincemeat pies, all types of muffins and croissants, sunflower honey bread, blue cheese onion focaccia, cranberry anise raisin focaccia, cookies, meatloaf, cupcakes, brownies, quiches, frangipane, tarts, and seasonal jams and fruit pies made from whatever’s ripe: apples, Montmorency cherries, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, rhubarb….
Besides being like many restaurants in the region that now faithfully support the booming local farm economy, Red Truck takes it all a step further. It turns out Brian Noyes has his own farm and orchard and when things are in season there, he brings its bounty in to experiment with in the kitchen. One staff member I spoke with also works at a nearby beef cattle operation. Not your average bakers. But then, this isn’t your average bakery. They have a fan club that spans the nation and even sell some of their products online.
That’s not something that appeals to me, personally, because no matter how fast FedEx hauls it, something essential is lost in the mail. When you love food, there’s something about it being grounded – literally from a specific place on the earth – that makes it special. But I understand; life is fast-paced and I guess for some folks, ordering food online is the only way they can get some of these kinds of products. As for me, you can call me ‘old-fashioned’ but if there’s ever a day when you can’t walk in to a bakery and smell the loaves rising, then I don’t know if I would want bread anymore.
Until that day, you will find me stopping at the Red Truck whenever I pass through Warrenton because you never know what you’ll find in this perfectly charming little seasonal small-town bakery lab. [Red Truck Rural Bakery (& Communal Dining Table), Old Town Warrenton @ Courthouse Square, 22 Waterloo Street, 540.347.2224, Pastries, Breads, Sandwiches, Soups, Coffee: Mon-Fri 6:30AM-3:00PM, Sat 7:30AM-3:00PM, www.redtruckbakery.com]
(Matt Bierce, 3/19/13)