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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
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“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
Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.
Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.
“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.
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Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.
Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.
Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.
“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.
“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.
Flour aged to improve its strength
Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.
“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”
Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.
The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.
The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.
Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.
“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.
Fresh flour rather gymnastic
Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.
“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”
The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.
Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.
“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.
“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”
Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.
“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.
The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.
Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.
Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell
It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.
Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California
Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon
Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans
Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont
Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont
Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont
Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine
Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts
Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina
Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia
Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina
Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin
Baker Miller, Chicago
Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan
460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho
Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire
Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee
Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia
600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia
Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta
True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia
The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Some restaurants that feature fresh flour
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York
All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina
Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado
Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries
Stone mills can supply your home baking
Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York
Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix
Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina
Grist & Toll, Pasadena
Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon
Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine
Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon
Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina
I have met the next generation of bread.
I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.
Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.
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Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.
“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.
The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.
A few bakeries now milling their own flour
Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.
Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.
Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.
Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.
“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”
Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.
The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.
The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.
Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.
All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.
The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.
Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.
So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.
I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.
For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.
Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran
“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”
In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.
“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Paula Marcoux
Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014
That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.
I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.
“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”
I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.
“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”
Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.
For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.
“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”
After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.
Gas not like using live fire
“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”
As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.
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“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.
The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.
“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
- ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
- 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
- 1¼ cups boiling water
- Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
- 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped
- Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
- With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
- Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
- Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
- Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
- When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.
Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch
One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.
Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.
My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.
Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.
Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.
Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.
This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.
Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.
This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.
Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.
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A work in progress
Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.
Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.
I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.
Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder
I love locally grown and ground flours because they taste great and think right. So when my son wanted to share a meal for his birthday, not just a cake, we used local rye to make crepes in the cow pasture near his boarding school.
While eggs and butter do a lot of flavor work in this recipe, the rye has a speaking role. I can trace the flour back to the field, and picture where the rye was milled, sure as I can remember my kid on his first birthday, standing at a coffee table and digging at a roasted chicken with hunger and delight. Beyond my love for my son and a beautiful day, does the flour stand on its own merits? To find out I interviewed a couple of New York City bakers who use Farmer Ground Flour.
Peter Endriss bakes at Runner & Stone in Brooklyn. I met his bread at a tasting of regional flours six months before I met him. His rye — dark and dense, sweet and sour — sat in my brain like a gargoyle perched on a building.
The name Runner & Stone refers to New York City’s first water powered gristmill, which was located nearby. In stone milling, the top stone is called the runner and the lower, stable stone is called the bedstone.
His breads appeared at farmers markets before the bakery nested inside the restaurant at the end of 2012; since then, good press has shined a star on the loaves, helping them march out the door long before lunch is even served.
“The only non-local flour we’re using is artisan white bread flour from Central Milling,” said Endriss in a recent interview, beginning a verbal tour of the invisible breads that sold out before 10 that morning, thanks to attention from the New York Times.
Runner & Stone features baguettes that are white, whole wheat and buckwheat. It also makes a whole wheat walnut levain, Bolzano rye, sesame semolina, and a rye ciabatta, all with varying percentages of whole grain Farmer Ground flours. The brioche and croissants have 10% whole wheat flour. Champlain Valley Milling, another mill in New York state, provides the white spelt flour used in its pretzel, modeled after a southern German pretzel that uses Dinkel flour, which is also spelt.
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These breads are built with many qualities in mind.
“First, I want the bread to be nice,” Endriss said. The second is “how much whole grain can we add to a baguette and still have it be my impression of a baguette?”
This means a thin crust and an open interior with a flavor that is not too sour; something pleasant to eat and a little lighter than a whole wheat sourdough.
The 1970s concept of whole grain breads carried a halo of self-righteousness and the reputation of a penitential texture, but these loaves — and the team that makes them — are more down to earth about blending earthy concerns with the loftiness of high bread.
“I have a degree in environmental science,” Endriss said, reflecting on what motivates his flour choices. “I think my experiences in studying natural resource management and doing fieldwork associated with that, [gives] the farm a stronger presence in my mind when I look at an ingredient.”
Local flours for flavor, not structure
In baking circles, the arguments against using local flours tend to focus on their unpredictability. Because smaller mills blend from fewer grain sources, the batches vary more than larger mills. This isn’t a problem for Endriss, who doesn’t rely on the whole grain flours for structure. The white flour provides that, and the local flours act more as flavor elements.
Whole grain flours get another strike because the bran acts like little knives, interrupting the formation of the gluten matrix. Using pre-ferments – fermenting a portion of the dough before the whole batch – helps ameliorate some of that.
“The scale of our production is probably the factor that allows us to adjust to inconsistency in the flour,” he said. “If our five kilos of dough is fermenting a little too fast, we just put the tub in the fridge and fix it.”
In a larger bakery, 300 kilos of dough running off the track would not be so easy to correct.
She Wolfe Bakery also uses Farmer Ground Flour, backing up the local whole grains with King Arthur organic flours. The bakery supplies Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants – Reynard, Marlow & Sons, Diner, Roman’s – and the breads are also for sale at Achilles Heel and Marlow & Daughters.
She Wolfe began at Roman’s, where Austin Hall baked bread in the wood fired pizza oven. In January 2013, the bakery moved to rented space in a shared kitchen and began baking seven days a week.
This bread has also enjoyed great press, and with good reason. The whole wheat miche — a kind of French country loaf that might be the poster child for the artisan bread movement — is still sitting in my mind, staring at me like Endriss’ rye gargoyle.
Linked to the land
Hall’s interest in local flour is linked to the land, and similar to Endriss’s. (Coincidentally, the two worked together briefly at Per Se, where Peter expanded the restaurant’s bread program.)
Hall grew up in Iowa, in an agricultural community but not in a farming family.
“Watching the farmland around me disappear into a bedroom community was frustrating,” he said over a pilsner at Achilles Heel, where his bread sat on shelves, down the row from whiskey bottles. The round ciabatta sat like a cake on a crystal pedestal, dimpled white rounds sandwiching the plump filling of a muffuletta.
Coincidentally, the Farmer Ground Flour in those loaves is the product of suburban sprawl. Outside of Ithaca, N.Y., the land that grain farmer Thor Oechsner was renting was getting snapped up for development. He needed to make more money from his crops, so he added value by switching from growing grain for animal feed to growing food grade grains and starting a flour mill.
Hall likes this local flour because he believes supporting stone milling helps preserve a body of knowledge. The miche serves that kind of preservation role, too.
“For me the miche is such a preindustrial thing, you know?” he said. Everything about it, from the lightly sifted stone milled flour, to the size of the loaf and the style of baking is related to a series of preexisting conditions.
“You’re using a stiff starter because it’s easier to control without refrigeration. You’re mixing a really wet dough, because if you don’t have a mechanical mixer, it’s just a matter of dragging your arm through a mixing trough,” he said. “You’re making a large loaf because if you’re baking once a week, you want it to keep for a long time.”
Hall delivers the romance of a bread that’s frozen in time. Even if people can’t taste the values a baker imagines, I love that Endriss and Hall want to feed people the landscape. That is a motive I understand, whether my griddle is perched on a campstove in the midst of a pastoral view, or steady at the home stove, steering in the morning pancakes.
Main photo: Bolzano miche from Brooklyn’s Runner & Stone bakery and restaurant using local flour. Credit: Mayumi Kasuga