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Whole Wheat Grows Up

I’ve always been a whole wheat sort of gal. Beyond its nutritional value, I like its nutty flavor. I use it in just about all of my breads because whole-wheat breads are more interesting to me; they have more flavor. The buttermilk pancakes my son eats for breakfast every morning are made with two-thirds whole-wheat and one-third unbleached all-purpose flours; I even prefer to use some whole-wheat flour in pastries, particularly pastries like scones, and crusts for savory pies, including pizza. But whether I’m making breads, doughs or pastry, I rarely use all whole-wheat flour, because 100 percent whole-wheat breads and pastries can be heavy and stodgy. To quote Paul Canales, the executive chef at Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., “Whole-wheat bread or pasta [can be] a hippie experience in your mouth.”

That’s not what chef Canales is saying today; nor are his customers. And I may change my tune as well if I can get hold of some of the flour that Canales is using. He’s making pizza, pasta and focaccia with 100 percent whole-wheat flour made from locally grown and milled wheat, and the results are amazing. The pasta is delicate and acts just like pasta made from refined semolina flour; the pizza crusts are thin, chewy and crackly; the focaccia are rich and nutty, bready but not stodgy, the way a focaccia should be.

The beginning of a movement to grow and mill wheat locally

The flour is the result of a project called Community Grains, the brainchild of Bob Klein, Oliveto’s owner. Community Grains grew out of the restaurant’s long-standing interest in pasta and polenta, and the Italian wheat and corn varieties that were at the core of their textures and flavors. “We sought out the very best available flours…but we knew very little about the grain itself, about varietals, farming, and milling,” says Klein. It occurred to him that a local grain economy in Northern California could result in the same improvement in grain quality that the local farmers movement has produced with produce, meat and dairy products.

Klein began what he first called “The Oliveto Wheat Project” in 2007, organizing a meeting of farmers, seedsmen, millers, distributors, bakers and cooks to talk about growing, milling and baking with local wheat. “The analogy,” says Klein, “is the beginnings of the food movement back in the ’70s, when small farmers began taking more of an interest in different varieties of fruits and vegetables and began to refocus on the health of their soils, and when many young people were going ‘back to the land.’ ”

Navigating the learning curve

There are many challenges. Farmers have to figure out through trial and error what grains to grow and how to grow them, and there’s a lot to understand about storage, milling and distribution. Chefs, bakers and home cooks then need to learn how to work with the grains and their flours.

They’ve made an impressive start. Bruce Rominger has grown several heritage Italian wheat varieties on his farm in Woodland, Calif., as well as hard red winter wheat, hard white winter wheat and hard amber durum. The hard red winter wheat has 13.6 percent protein and produces a high-strength flour that’s good for artisan breads and pizzas. Bakers are using the slightly lower-protein (12 percent) hard white winter wheat for rolls, breads, and pastries. For his pastas, Canales uses both the hard red winter wheat and the hard amber durum (whose protein content is 10.3 percent). At a recent presentation and tasting of Community Grains at Oliveto, he served delicious pizza topped with pioppini mushrooms and leeks, penne tossed with butter and herbs, and mostaccioli with a veal ragù sauce. The food was wholesome but delicate, with rich, nutty flavors, far from a hippie experience in the mouth.

Quality flour begins at the mill

Milling is the key to this user-friendly whole-grain flour. An interesting miller named Joe Vanderliet has partnered with Community Grains. Vanderliet’s Certified Foods in Woodland, where Community Grains are milled, has perfected and patented a milling technique that keeps the grain intact, yet achieves a fine flour that chefs and bakers love. Traditional whole-wheat flours present a problem because the bran is too large and prevents gluten formation; they drink up too much water, which is the enemy of pasta.

Vanderliet has been in the flour milling business for 40 years. At some point he became disenchanted with conventional milling because of the way the wheat is denatured in the process. In the steel mills that process wheat on a commercial scale the bran and germ, or the embryo, are removed from the grain. What remains is the endosperm, which is made up primarily of starch molecules. “The endosperm is basically a carb factory,” says Vanderliet. Fiber and most of the beneficial nutrients – the vitamins and minerals that we know about like vitamins E and B6, magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as many potentially beneficial phytochemicals, biologically important molecules some of which we haven’t even discovered yet — are removed when flour is refined.

Even the whole-wheat flour that we find in the supermarket is lacking in many of the grain’s original nutrients if it’s been produced on an industrial scale. Industrial mills separate the bran and germ from the endosperm no matter what type of flour they’re producing. Some of the bran and germ is added back to make whole-wheat flour, but at the discretion of the miller. It is not made from intact grain.

If you buy stone-ground flour from a reputable mill, you are getting intact flour. But from a baker and a chef’s point of view, that flour is still a problem if you want to use more than 30 percent of it in your baked goods or pastas. What’s different about the flour that Certified Foods is milling is its fine texture. How they achieve it remains a well-guarded secret.

Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks. Her latest is “The Very Best of Recipes for Health,” published by Rodale.

Photo: Wheat. Credit: Emine Bayram

Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including "The Very Best of Recipes for Health" and "The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking," both published by Rodale. She also joined Jacquy Pfeiffer in winning a 2014 James Beard Award for "The Art of French Pastry."