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Pancakes are everyday magic. There is something about a puff of flour rising to the occasion of an otherwise dull morning that makes me want to eat pancakes all day long.
My dad invited me into this dedication more than 40 years ago, letting me tend the griddle. Each time I hold the spatula in my hand, waiting for bubbles to break and tell me it’s time to flip, I am in that second when he surrendered the tool and the task.
An early love of pancakes
This was never about the syrup. We had the fake stuff growing up, and I didn’t develop a taste for the real. My love is for the cake. For the way something comes from almost nothing, and carries so much — butter, maybe some berries, and always a delicious, soft bite.
“My name is Amy Halloran. I am 7 years old. I have a new baby brother and I like pancakes.”
So I declared in my second-grade autobiography. My interest bloomed into a curiosity about baking, and throughout my childhood I made sure our cookie tins were full. In my 20s a blue cornmeal pancake at a restaurant, served with salsa and crème fraîche, directed my attention back to the griddle. I studied old cookbooks and baking powder pamphlets, scouting the perfect formula for corn cakes, savory and sweet.
Using locally grown grains
When I met the man I would marry, the first meal I made him was pancakes. There were ears of cooked corn in the fridge and nice cornmeal in his pantry. I debated about whether I should make them sweet, savory or both? Should I add flour? I wanted them to be perfect because I really liked him. I wanted him to know the self I made toying with recipes for oatmeal cookies and making my father’s favorite chocolate cake over and over again. The pancakes would be a tour of me.
We’ve been together 20 years, and most mornings, we have pancakes. Once I discovered freshly milled, locally grown grains, my devotion stretched over every corner of my mind. I started following these tasty flours back to the field and meeting the pioneers who are growing and using grains outside of the wheat belts. Farmers, millers and bakers let me watch them work and answered a gazillion questions. When I met the people who started the first malt house in New England in 100 years, I also met malt. Adding this sweet grain to my pancakes took them to another level.
Room for change
Pancakes are my sun rising each morning, and I want to make a constellation of them for family, friends and crowds. Occasionally, people suggest I should try theirs, and the idea makes me cringe. I know the offer is generous, and that my rejection is not, but other people’s pancakes are just that: not mine. I might as well live in someone else’s house and try to have her dreams.Yet within my reluctance, there is room for change, as baker and cookbook author Peter Reinhart showed me a couple of weeks ago in Maine, at the Kneading Conference.
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“Bread has a story to tell, and we wouldn’t be here if bread didn’t touch us in some special way,” Reinhart said in his keynote speech. Part of that captivation is the transformation of grain that was once living into living dough. Another part is the oven turning that dough into a currency that feeds more than our bellies.
His words were really hitting home for me. The translation of grains from ground to loaf requires the cooperation of farmers, millers and bakers. I love being the pancake chef and delivering a piece of me through food. That stitchery of baking fascinates Reinhart as well.
While researching his book about pizza, “American Pie,” he interviewed Chris Bianco, the poster boy of the artisanal pizza movement. The man, Reinhart said, was shy as he tried to get him to discuss what made his pizza so special. The unique ingredient, he eventually admitted, was him. Although he had been approached to make products or franchises, he couldn’t bottle himself to make any replicas represent what he did. When the author asked what connection Bianco wanted to make with people, he said, “I want them to experience my soul.”
Trying others’ recipes
This is what made pancakes my beloved. I have been staring at the griddle forever. I’ve given little else in life the same energy. I have arrived at an expression of my ideal pancake, a fluffy whole-grain loft, and I’m reluctant to taste anyone else’s estimation of the food.
However, I so admired Peter Reinhart and his ideas that when he announced he would be making pancakes from his latest book, “Bread Revolution,” I wanted to help.
The next morning, I was excited for a pancake date, but I had to fight the urge to bring my own pancake mix as an offering. I knew such an offering would prevent me from experiencing his recipe and method, so I left my mixes in the car and had a great time working with him and a few work-study students at the griddle. Plus, I actually liked the cakes!
Mixing it up
The next day, I had another person’s pancakes, and loved them also. Father Paul Dumais spoke last year at the Kneading Conference about his family’s Acadian flatbread, and now he’s making a mix. I was still reluctant to receive pancakes I didn’t make, but I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of biting into the soft, yellow buckwheat cake he’d curled into a roll.
This was him. His family had grown and milled the grain, and he had worked and worked to find a formula to re-create his mother and aunt’s ployes. He gave me mix to take home, and I’m serving it to my family and friends. They love these cakes, and I can’t wait for them to try the ones in their true form, made by Father Paul. He is missing from his food, but at least I get a reminder.
Making pancakes, making connections
The dish that escorted me into a five-year, book-long exploration of flour is bringing me into a new appreciation of people and food. While this is a surprise, it is also in keeping with the main thing I learned about grains. Other foods can go from ground to mouth without as much handling. Farmers, millers and bakers are collaborating with the seasons, soil and tools to feed us. I have been stunned by their work, and very appreciative of it. Now that my walls against other people’s pancakes are crumbling, I can feel connected to flour in another, equally enchanting way.
(Full disclosure: Peter Reinhart wrote a beautiful blurb for my book after he read it, but otherwise we have no connection.)
Main photo: Pancakes are a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) food that never gets old. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch
Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.
Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.
The importance of malt
Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”
“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”
Craft malthouses opening
At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.
This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.
Brewing at the local level
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“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”
Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.
“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”
His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.
Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.
As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.
Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.
Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.
“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”
A steep learning curve
For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.
“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”
Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett
Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.
“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.
Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.
The importance of local flour
“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.
“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.
Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.
A family mill makes uniform flour
At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.
All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.
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Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.
To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.
Keeping the integrity of the crop
The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.
“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”
Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.
For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.
A bakery-mill collaboration
Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.
“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.
“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.
Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.
Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.
“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.
Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.
The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.
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Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.
Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.
Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”
Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.
Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.
Little about gluten is straightforward
Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.
“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.
Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.
Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.
One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.
However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.
Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.
Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.
This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.
As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.
Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock
Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.
The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.
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The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.
All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.
Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.
In praise of baking powder
Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.
Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.
I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.
Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.
I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.
2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.
3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.
4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.
5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.
6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six pieces.
7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.
8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.
Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz