Get ready, Twin Cities. The quintessential Iron Range pastry is moving en masse down south.
To be sure, many people in the metro already know about potica (pronounced po-TEET-sa). For many years, you could buy it at Lunds, Byerly’s and Kowalski’s, among other retailers. It’s also available online.
But two of the best-known bakers, both based on the Iron Range, have intensified their marketing and production in 2014. What has traditionally been considered a holiday-season delicacy could become a readily available year-round treat in the metro.
What is potica? Sometimes referred to by the rather undistinguished name of “nut roll,” the buttery pastry with layers of ground nut filling has a history as rich as its flavor. Mary Lou Voelk, vice president of culture and heritage for the Illinois-based Slovenian Union of America and an Iron Range native, can tell you about potica’s roots. Potica is linked to roll breads like Hungarian pogacha and a Slovenian predecessor called gubanca, and Voelk explains that Slovenian immigrants baked potica to help transplant their culture to the Range. But perhaps the best histories are personal.
“A day was set aside for the potica making, a festivity never to be forgotten,” Voelk recalls from her childhood in Ely. “Grinding the nuts, making sure the room temperature is just right, preparing the table with the linen sheet. Just watching the dough get thinner and thinner as it is stretched! Heaven forbid if there was a hole in the dough. My eyes were always big when the sheet was picked up and the potica began its trek down the table, growing in girth as it rolled along.”
(began producing potica in 1960)
walnut, pecan, walnut/apple
Number sold per year:
Undetermined. “A lot,” says owner Ginny Forti. “We probably go through eight to 10 tons of nuts per year.”
“We had a woman working for us when I was young, and her mother made potica, and would send us one every Christmas. Well, I was the only one in the family who liked it. I would devour that whole potica.”
Photo by Katie Fredeen,
Pink Tie Design
Varieties: walnut, poppy seed
Number sold per year:
“On my visit [to Slovakia] last year, my sister baked potica, and we all sat around the table with our 94-year-old mother and talked about our childhood days—and my potica in the U.S. ”
Though Slovenia is considered the birthplace of potica—it’s certainly a Slovenian word—you can find versions of it throughout Eastern Europe. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose family is of Iron Range Slovenian origin, has served potica to politicos in Washington, D.C., where it has reportedly won fans on both sides of the aisle. Given the large influx of Slovenians to the Range during the heyday of iron mining, potica can be considered an Iron Range delicacy.
In short, potica is a storied pastry. And both of the Iron Range bakeries expanding their potica sales in the Twin Cities have remarkable stories of their own.
Since 1913, when Italian immigrant and family patriarch Giulio Forti came to Hibbing, Sunrise Bakery has been one of the city’s institutions. Sunrise Bakery makes other delicacies besides potica, including biscotti and breads.
But the sale of potica is a key reason why Sunrise is still baking after 100 years. Ginny Forti, the third-generation family member who now runs the business, pushed her father into making the pastry around 1960. Vincent Forti already made various ethnic specialties to appeal to the Range’s ethnic diversity, including Norwegian julekake and Czech kolacky, as well as Italian panettone. He learned and perfected a potica recipe, leaving his daughter to sell the results of his handiwork. Though she was able to get Byerly’s in Edina to take it, “it was a hard sell,” she says. “Nobody knew what it was.”
Then in 1991, the Los Angeles Times food editor visited Hibbing and wrote a short piece on Sunrise and its potica. “I was driving from Minneapolis and my people are calling me,” Forti recalls. “They said, ‘Ginny, the phone is ringing off the hook for potica.’ ” The publicity led to a supply contract with the Vermont Country Store, which still sells it. Sunrise Bakery also started a catalogue mail order for potica and other products, and now sells it online as well.
Earlier this year, a fourth-generation family member, Tom Forti, opened the Sunrise Market in St. Paul. It carries many Sunrise products—including potica.
Jan Gadzo has plenty of stories of growing up in what is now eastern Slovakia. He can regale you with tales of his anti-Communist activities in the 1960s and his nerve-wracking escape from Czechoslovakia in 1969. A mechanical engineer, he ended up working for a New Jersey company whose customers included Hibbing Taconite. He came for business reasons to the Iron Range; he fell in love with the region and with Jean, his Chisholm-born wife (whose ancestry is Finnish). In a few years, he and Jean settled in Chisholm, where he cooked big Slovak meals for the holidays. He also made potica—a word that Jean introduced him to. (In Slovakia, his family made a similar pastry called orechovník.)
After a few years of selling his homemade potica as a side business to friends and friends of friends, Gadzo launched Andrej’s European Pastry in 1999. (He named the business for his father. ) This past March, when he wanted to expand production and get closer to the Twin Cities market, Gadzo struck a deal with Tobies Restaurant and Bakery in Hinckley to make his potica from Gadzo’s recipe. He had been making about 16,000 loaves a year. (Each one-pound loaf costs around $12—about the same as Sunrise’s.) By working with Tobies, he believes that he can sell many more. Gadzo has closed his Iron Range production facility and has Tobies making all of his potica.
“My job right now is promotion of the potica,” says Gadzo, adding that his company will focus on expanding sales within Minnesota, though Andrej’s also ships worldwide.
So whose potica is better? Well, why choose? Buy one of each. And nominate potica, at least in your own mind, for the official state pastry of Minnesota.
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.