Milwaukee Food Tours: whiffs of bakeries, ethnicity

Aboard the designated “yellow limousine,” which looks an awful lot like a school bus, Sandy Oliver adjusts her elf’s hat and advises us to pace ourselves. Then her holiday and ethnic history lessons begin.

What do Irish families eat on Christmas? Spiced beef, served hot or cold.

Who stretches the yuletide season into a three-week celebration? The Italians, who don’t exchange gifts until Jan. 6, the Epiphany.

What is the “Polish moon” in Milwaukee? The iconic, four-sided, 280-foot-tall Allen-Bradley clock. (In its shadow are longtime Polish neighborhoods.)

We learn, win little prizes and feed a sugar buzz while bouncing under viaducts and through residential areas during a three-hour and five-stop tour of bakeries from South Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, just west of the city.

Consider the temptations: Pecan fingers. Anise drops. Rum balls. Fudge penguins. Turtly turtles vs. turtle corn. What we can’t sample, we have time to buy.

“We look for locally owned and ethnic opportunities to show off the city – places that you likely wouldn’t see on your own,” says Theresa Nemetz, founder of Milwaukee Food Tours. Her business with husband Wade began in 2008, and now the “hobby gone wild” has 16 part-time tour guides.

This morning begins with a peek at Stone Creek Coffee‘s factory store, across from Amtrak and Greyhound stations downtown. The 1898 Cream City brick building, devoted to roasting and grinding since the 1990s, soon adds a cafe with house-baked pastries and a training center to turn average people into baristas.

Our tour guide introduces herself as a Milwaukee native, Marquette University grad, 92 percent German and stocked with brown paper lunch bags (available for us to stash what we don’t immediately eat).

We head into working-class neighborhoods to sample fig-filled buccillati and tri-colored spumoni cookies at Canfora Bakery. Then squares of thick, warm pizza make the rounds as a line of clerks in white uniforms work, watch and smile.

Next comes National Bakery, open since 1925, where co-owner Bryant Krauss offers ham on just-baked hard rolls while a steady flow of customers drains the day’s supply of filled coffeecakes to paczki.

The paczki are glazed or powdered doughnuts filled with prunes to raspberries, sold all year but (by Polish tradition) most popular on Fat Tuesday, before the Lenten season begins. That’s when National Bakery sells around 36,000 of the jelly-filled treats; the line of customers forms out the door and around the block.

There are enough bakeries and candy makers in the area to fill two three-hour tours, without overlap, and this is what Milwaukee Food Tours offers. One stop might involve a quick and easy walk to two or more businesses.

Tom and Cindi Wuethrich of Chicago found their way here while searching online for something fun and filling to do. Steve and Kathy Kramarich of Milwaukee won their tour spots during a silent auction and hadn’t been to any of the stops previously.

That’s not unusual, Theresa says. All stops were new for about one-half of the 21 tour participants.

The bakery tour was the fourth Milwaukee Food Tours outing for John Hutchinson and Cherie Brown of Janesville. Their favorite Milwaukee pizza and gelato come from Caradaro Club, which they discovered during a food tour.

Theresa says the most obvious segment of city heritage is endangered.

“A lot of ethnic traditions are going away,” she observes. “At greatest risk are the German traditions – we no longer have a strictly German retail bakery in Milwaukee.”

Some evidence of these ethnic roots is incidental. Example: “Schnibbles” are scraps of fabric (if you’re a quilter) or food (if you’re a baker). Leftovers are not discarded in the frugal German’s world, and that includes Wauwatosa, where little bags of sweet schnibbles sell for a buck or two.

At La Tarte bakery, end slices of carrot and pumpkin bread are packaged as schnibbles. Around the corner at Ultimate Confections, schnibbles of chocolate (slivers and drips from candy making and decorating) are sold with a recipe for Chocolate Schnibbler Cookies.

Milwaukee Food Tours began with a walking tour of Brady Street businesses, which include Peter Sciortino’s Bakery and its Italian cannoli, tiramisu, macaroons and boconcini (cream-filled pastry puffs).

Now the tour menu includes neighborhood and citywide excursions that involve pizza to high-end dining. The Christmas Around Milwaukee Bakery Bus Tour costs $50 per person and begins at 9:30 a.m. Stops on the Saturday and Sunday routes are not the same.

For more:, 800-979-3370. Private group tours also are arranged.

About 120 bakeries are in the Wisconsin Bakers Association; the peak of membership, around 1960, was almost 500. Dave Schmidt, the group’s CEO, says more groceries with bakeries and less demand for wholesale baking account for the difference.

“Retail bakers have found themselves needing to change,” he says. Small, niche businesses that specialize (breads to cupcakes) tend to be more sustainable than wholesale operations that produce 500 types of bakery per week.

Food TV show popularity and consumer demand for high-quality baked goods will propel “a bakery renaissance,” predicts Dave, who notes that Wisconsin’s culinary training programs have waiting lists.

Numerous Italian and Mexican bakeries dot Wisconsin. Less common are these ethnic favorites:

Clasen’s European Bakery, 7610 Donna Dr., Middleton – A German family since 1959 has produced Black Forest tortes, plum cakes, fruit strudels, gingerbread houses, pfeffernusse cookies and German breads (including a dense pumpernickel) baked in a stone-lined oven., 608-831-2032

O&H Bakery, various locations, Racine – The kingpin of Danish bakeries sells about two dozen types of kringle (filled, flakey and flat, oblong pastry). Bundt-like crown cakes, rugbrod bread and seven-sisters coffeecake (a ring of buttery rolls with custard or other filling) also make the menu., 800-709-4009

New Glarus Bakery, 534 First St., New Glarus – Popular are from-scratch Swiss almond and walnut horns, birnbrot (a spiced pear bread), buttery gipfel (like a croissant) and samplers of cookies and breads., 866-805-5536

Fosdal Home Bakery, 243 E. Main St., Stoughton – Bakers since 1949 have sold Norwegian specialties that include krumkrake and sandbakkel, lefse and rosettes., 608-873-3073

La Baguette, 7424 Mineral Point Rd., Madison – The French-born baker and his wife operate a patisserie that sells brioche, plain and filled croissants, quiche, ciabatta and pastries in a cafe-like setting where both French and English are spoken. 608-827-6775