California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.
What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.
By Jon Bonné
And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).
During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.
Documenting the historic shift
Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.
The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.
From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.
Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.
More than one kind of California wine
Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.
“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.
The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts. In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.
Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”
Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”
The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.
Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”
Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné
Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors at the beginning of 2012, and quickly became the hottest place in Mexico City. It’s an unpretentious European-style bistro in the once opulent Colonia Roma neighborhood, which is in the midst of a redevelopment boom. Cool and chic Máximo replaces a dowdy medical supply store; once a trash-strewn corner with little foot traffic is now a well-known gastronomic destination. You can find the best brandade de morue this side of the Seine here. Or a classic ceviche. While Mexico-born chef and owner Eduardo García likes rustic French cooking, his feet are firmly planted on native ground, and he often includes typical Mexican ingredients such as chilies, hot and mild; cuitlacoche, the rich corn fungus known as “Mexican truffle”; or country herbs like epazote in his dishes.
The chef formerly worked under Enrique Olvera of Pujol, the esteemed local palace of experimental gastronomy, and also toiled in Manhattan’s star-strewn Le Bernardín where seafood reigns.
García represents the new generation of Mexican cooks who, while well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, have come back home, incorporating these ideas into their native cuisine.
Eduardo García puts ‘local’ in Máximo Bistrot Local
The chef has brought expert gastronomic skills to his own place, opened on a shoestring and run with his wife, the affable Gabriela, who acts as host. Máximo Bistrot Local’s publicity claims that materia prima is local and organic, if possible. The chef visits the city’s spectacular markets daily, choosing what looks best, then adroitly improvising a new menu each day. The food coming out of his kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.
How is what you cook related to classic Mexican cuisine?
Our menu is based not only on Mexican cuisine, but also on local ingredients — hence the name “bistro local.” But I like to include a few “authentic” dishes. The relationship between my cuisine and Mexican cooking is all about ingredients, methods and philosophy. I think my growing up in Mexico and having trained here infuses everything I do. For example, I often take advantage of the huge variety of chilies used in our cooking, and the specifically Mexican ways of preparing them, such as toasting and grinding.
And to classic European cooking?
I wouldn’t say “classic European” but French and rustic Italian. Again, the methods are a big part of the relationship. I take what I consider to be the best techniques from the aforementioned European traditions.
What are the advantages of running a restaurant in Mexico City?
In the city, purveyors are more focused than in other parts of Mexico. We’re in the middle of the country and everything is available here; I can get seafood from either coast hours after it is caught.
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Also guests here are more open to experimenting with food than they might be in the provinces — Mexicans tend to be conventional when it comes to food.
What’s coming up on your menu?
I’m planning a trip to visit small restaurants in Europe to get more inspiration for my menu. I’m more interested in experiencing local, time-honored cooking than the avant-garde stuff.
What is you latest ingredient obsession?
Fresh seafood from Ensenada. There are extraordinary ingredients there. Percebes, for example, are barnacles not well-known outside of Spain, where they cost a fortune. Here they are accessible and I’ve been experimenting with them: I included them in a ceviche recently.
What is your favorite restaurant/chef in town?
I don’t hang out much with the “top” chefs or at fancy restaurants. My favorite place is Fonda Las Margaritas in Colonia Del Valle [a quiet residential neighborhood south of the center]. It’s where I like to eat on my day off. It’s a simple old-fashioned neighborhood fonda that does really authentic no-frills Mexican food.
And out of town?
Casa Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City. My friend, Chef Alejandro Ruíz, is doing incredible things with local market foods there. I always look forward to seeing what he’s up to.
Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?
The culinary scene here is expanding, as are people’s palates. I think that Mexico City is becoming one of the top destinations for food. New restaurants as well as old established ones are using more fresh and local products. And that’s a real good thing.
And what are your life plans?
I’ve been offered jobs here and abroad, book deals, even a TV show! I’ve turned them all down. Because I just don’t have time to do anything but cook, and make sure everything in my place is the best it can be.
I’ve seen some of my contemporaries fall prey to the “star chef” phenomena — and their restaurants suffer for this. You can’t be a star and maintain a great kitchen unless it is established and you are able to train younger chefs to be as good as you. I know I’m not there yet. We’re doing amazingly well, are always full and now have sidewalk rights so a few more tables. But it’s very hard work, six days a week, exhausting. I hope I can keep it up.
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.
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Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.
The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.
But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.
Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.
Don’t assume small, local farms are organic
Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.
We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.
At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.
Converting conventional farms one at a time
Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?
Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington
I love chomping into a chunk of crusty, crunchy bread. There is nothing like a freshly baked loaf that is soft and springy in the middle with a crust so hard it cracks when you bite into it. I often think of this kind of bread as San Francisco-style bread because that’s where I first ate it, although it can be found across the globe. I even bought a Le Creuset cast-iron pot expressly for the purpose of making it at home.
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As much as I love eating this kind of bread, I’d always found an excuse to avoid baking it myself. About the time I decided that this beautiful little pot would never, ever see a loaf of bread baking inside it, I discovered the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and attended a workshop that has radically changed my attitude toward bread baking.
The Los Angeles Bread Bakers is the kind of organization I admire because it is full of community spirit and knowledgeable members, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts of the workshop were Erik Knutzen and his wife Kelly Coyne. Together they run rootsimple.com and have written a number of great how-to books including “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” So I figured why not dedicate an afternoon to hanging out with Knutzen and Coyne and making some bread.
I already knew how to make bread, just not this particular kind of bread. I grew up in the South where bread is wonderful, but something entirely different. Where I come from, bread is soft throughout, slightly sweet, and topped with melted butter. It may be brown or white, but it never has the crunchy, crackly crust that I admired.
Many of the workshop participants were also experienced bakers who shared my motivation for attending the workshop. We all wanted to learn how to bake this crusty bread, but perhaps even more important we wanted to hang out with other people who really like to make bread and really like to talk about it.
As it turns out, this is pretty much how The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got started. Knutzen, Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz founded the group in 2011. I knew of Stambler because of his tireless campaign to persuade state lawmakers to pass the new California Homemade Food Act. Often known as the Cottage Food Law, it will open up a new world for home bakers looking to get into the food business.
When I asked Knutzen about the origins of LABB, he laughed and said, “I knew Teresa because she stalked me. Teresa and I were stalking Mark because we wanted to meet him and see his bread-making operation.”
The idea for LABB was born at Mark’s kitchen table. Its mission is to bring bread culture to Los Angeles and to introduce Angelenos to the many forms bread can take. To that end, the group has been host to workshops on a wide variety of topics including beginning bread baking, sourdough breads, soba noodles, pie crust and pizza making. They’ve even had a workshop on how to build your own adobe oven.
Membership in LABB also has privileges beyond learning great bread-making techniques. LABB’s almost 600 members are able to participate in bulk orders from high-end mills that grind flours using heritage wheat and other hard-to-find, but amazingly delicious grains.
Getting down to business in class
Our class began with an introduction to this type of bread, which is based on Jim Lahey’s now-famous recipe for “No-Knead Bread.” I always thought that bread was made or destroyed in the kneading process, but as we started to measure ingredients, Erik told us, “You have one chance to get it right — when you mix the dough.”
Knutzen showed us how to mix the proper proportion of flour to water, known as the hydration ratio. Just at the point when I started to worry (once again) that I’m not meticulous enough to be a great baker, Coyne chimed in and told us a hilarious story about doing everything wrong and still coming out with a good (or at least perfectly edible) loaf of bread.
Once mixed, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours, which is much longer than a traditional bread recipe. We all left the workshop with a bowl full of dough ready to rise in our own homes. The next day my family and I enjoyed a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It was not particularly gorgeous, but as crunchy and crackly as any I’d ever tasted in San Francisco.
The LABB is exactly what I’m looking for in a group because it encourages experimentation and breeds enthusiasm. Now LABB is taking its project to the next level. They’re growing their own wheat on a few acres in Agoura Hills, Calif. If all goes well, the wheat will be ready in early summer and milled into flour for the use and enjoyment of LABB members. As a new member, I can’t wait for the harvest.
Top photo: Boule made with all-purpose flour from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz
On a crispy May morning, we gathered in the wheat fields of Fat Uncle Farms, right off Highway 246 in Lompoc, Calif. It was a spontaneous assemblage of Los Angeles-based chefs and bakers, a cooking school teacher, a miller, a photographer and myself, a noodle maker. We were eager to learn about landrace grains — carpooling 400 miles in one day to visit five grain farms in Southern California.
On that May day, Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms greeted us, his toddler son in his arms. Nathan is a third-generation almond farmer who began experimenting last year with landrace grains, ancient grains whose cultural and physical identities have been retained and improved by farmers for centuries and are nutrient rich, flavorful and at the core of biodiversity.
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Siemens wants to revive his grandfather’s sustainable practice of growing wheat as a crop rotation between the rows of almond trees after the nuts are harvested in order to maintain soil structure. He also wants to cultivate landrace grains to explore the growing interest in locally grown and milled flour.
A restored vintage All-Crop Harvester tractor circa 1960 stood next to his field. “In the short experience of using this machine, I can tell you that the main action of the combine happens right here,” Siemens explained, opening the metal door. “This rubberized component strikes the grains to dislodge them from the stalk and divides them up.”
Everyone looked inside with great curiosity. “Is that like winnowing?” asked Clemence Gossett, chef and owner of Gourmandise Cooking School in Santa Monica, Calif. “Yeah, that’s right,” Siemens said.
Roxana Jullapat, chef at Cooks County restaurant in Los Angeles, and Nicole Rucker, pastry chef at Gjelina in Los Angeles, both picked samples of Red Fife wheat to analyze the structure of the bristly awns. Jullapat broke off the green spike to taste the berry. “Sweet,” she exclaimed. The grains were still in their doughy stage. In a few months, they would turn hard and dry and be ready for harvest.
Seed grant to support local farmers
Among the visitors that day was Glenn Roberts of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, a renowned organic farmer and miller with a mission to support and improve lands through sustainable farming practices — growing grains, legumes and brasiccas in rotation, and animal husbandry.
The Anson Mills seed grant, which started more than a decade ago, has assisted regional grain hubs around the country, including Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Hayden Mills in Arizona. For the Los Angeles hub, the qualifying farmers had to be active farmers in Southern California and practitioners of sustainable agriculture. Each farmer grew on a small scale — between 5 acres and 20 acres of grains this year. Throughout the day, Roberts shared his tenet — about farming for flavor, not yield and farming for the soil, not the crop.
The spirit of grains
The cool wind was setting across the lush barley fields in a wave-like motion at Curt Davenport’s farm, The California Malting Co. in Santa Barbara County — the second farm we visited. Davenport was growing barley and Sonora wheat to produce malted grains for local microbreweries. He explained that the fields he is leasing have been used to grow barley and oats for years, but as an organic vegetable farmer, he wants to rotate wheat, barley, squash and other vegetables to maintain the health of the soils.
Dealing with the California drought
After picking up some tacos and burritos for lunch, we headed east for Tehachapi, Calif., to visit more farmers. As we traveled through the golden land, we couldn’t help notice the spell of drought. All the farmers we visited decided to use irrigation or partial irrigation to grow the grains except Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi, who opted for non-irrigation. When I talked to Hammond in February, he was concerned about the lack of precipitation. “We haven’t seen drought like this in 130 years,” he said. But since then, Tehachapi has had a few inches of rain and snow, which gave his wheat fields a boost.
We arrived in Tehachapi rather late, but managed to see another beautiful view of the undulating wheat fields. Hammond explained to us that such wind is called Wolf Wind — a concept that came from France, Germany and some of the Slavic countries, where they believe the grain fields are embraced with a spirit. A lot of us felt it strongly that day.
Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, famous for his fingerling potatoes, showed us his barley, rye and wheat fields. He collaborates with Hammond on grain-growing and animal husbandry projects — trying non-irrigation on Hammond’s wheat field and raising Gloustershire old spots pigs and chickens for pasture eggs and keeping an irrigated wheat field at Weiser’s Farms to grow seed for next season. “We are here to learn what kind of grains grow in our region,” Weiser said. “We will start small. We can learn together.”
Growing landrace grains is a novel attempt and one that may take awhile to make economic sense. But those who joined our tour that day said they felt these grains could be a worthy investment for everyone, for both environmental and culinary reasons. Before leaving, Weiser and Hammond gave Roberts an old key that Hammond found in the barn, perhaps one that belonged to his grandfather, also a farmer. We all figured it was the key to repatriate the way our ancestors grew grains — for flavor, hardiness and to maintain the health of the land. We all promised to be back for the harvest.
The Greater Los Angeles area hasn’t had stone milling for more than a century, but bakers Nan Kohler and Marti Noxon are addressing that lack. The partners held an open house in November for family and friends at their new enterprise, Grist & Toll, in Pasadena.
Kohler and Noxon, who also is a screenwriter and producer, are part of a larger effort to rebuild regional American flour mills. As artisanal baking becomes more popular and bakers become more sophisticated about quality, locally sourced ingredients, the mills contribute to America’s baking renaissance.
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The afternoon was a celebration of flour. In the parking lot, baker Michael O’Malley fed loaves into his mobile bread oven. He belongs to the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a Meetup group with 800 members, some of whom prepared dough for the event with flour that Kohler ground on a small mill at her home.
The breads vanished more quickly than they baked, sitting on a table under a tent just long enough to be cut and devoured. While cooling is acknowledged as the last and some say crucial phase of cooking in artisan bread baking, there was no waiting this day.
Inside, plenty of snacks gracing the small retail space disappeared, too. The flour, however, sat quite still. As the Osttiroler, a type of pine-planked Austrian mill that is quite beautiful, took its first turns and ground California wheat berries into flour, people stared in reverent interest. Some walked up to the bucket of flour and touched the light red stuff, running it between their fingers and over their hands. But mostly people just looked. How often do you get to watch this ingredient get made?
Getting back to our local flour roots
All flour used to be local. Before advances in transportation and technology centralized grain production in the United States, if you wanted flour, you got it from the local miller. During the 1800s and 1900s, milling centers shifted around the country, following the paths of waterways and railroads. At different points, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., held the crown for flour production. Currently, the U.S. milling industry processes 900 million pounds of wheat a year, but it is too soon to predict the output for Grist & Toll.
However, demand for fresh flour is evident. The mill is part of a nationwide trend to re-regionalize grain and flour production. There are a lot of reasons why these staples are crucial as people rebuild local food systems. In an interview at Jones Coffee, around the corner from the not yet open mill, Kohler considered why.
“For so many years, flour has just been a filler ingredient,” she said. “It gives something body and structure, and helps your cookies and cakes rise, but we haven’t had the ability to think of it as a texture building block or flavor building block until very recently.”
The conversation about alternative grains, she said, is fairly recent. Maybe only the last five years, the baking community has started to think of flour as a potentially influential flavor player.
“The most important stuff was your butter, your chocolate, dried cranberries or nuts,” she said. “No curious baker said why, and does it matter, and how can we find out?”
Now, however, the ball is rolling. Last year at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, Stone Barns chef Dan Barber asked more than 300 of his peers to consider the potential of wheat.
For much longer, a number of projects around the country have been working to promote the use of local grains. Skowhegan, Maine, has an Osttiroler stone mill, too. The Somerset Grist Mill is in the former county jail, making flour and rolling oats from grains produced in Aroostook County. Some farmers there are shifting from potatoes to grains to provide raw ingredients for the enterprise.
That Maine project is community driven, started by people who wanted their area to be known for more than New Balance sneakers and logging. Central New York has a farmer-miller-baker partnership serving artisan bakers and consumers in the region, as well as the New York City market. New York’s Farmer Ground Flour is a farmer driven enterprise undertaken by Thor Oeschner as he saw the land he rented gobbled up for real estate.
Grist & Toll fits into the list of baker-driven ventures, like Wild Hive Community Grain Project, Don Lewis’ mill in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Carolina Ground, the mill started by Jennifer Lapidus that uses grains from North and South Carolina.
Conversations about grains
Most baker-initiated projects, though, center on artisan bread baking, and Kohler’s focus has been pastry. A home baker who used to work in the wine industry, she turned her passion for pastry into a farmers market operation. That passion took another leap, and she ran the bakery for a restaurant.
Grist & Toll also plans to make education a part of its mission. “The beautiful thing about flour is I’m not just creating this product for a select consumer or group of people,” Kohler said. “Flour, even though it’s been missing from this farm-to-table conversation, it touches everybody, every household, every restaurant, school.”
Grist & Toll will be open for limited hours during the holidays and plans its full grand opening for after the first of the year, but the pallets of organic wheat grown in Santa Barbara County ready to mill hint at what this operation means: more control over what types of wheat are being planted, fresh flour hitting local kitchens, and conversations about grains that go beyond the big fat fear of gluten.
Top photo: Homemade bread. Credit: Sue Style