There Will Be Bread: The Newest Development in Food Culture Is Also the Oldest

You're here, so you're probably a foodie (whether you like it or not). You've read everything there is to know about local sourcing and seasonal menus and the advantages of grass-fed beef. You've endured the rolling eyes of friends who can't believe the prices you're willing to pay for bacon, pickled vegetables, egg nog. You're not alone.

But even you may find yourself wondering if things have perhaps gone a bit too far if we're now talking about artisanal flour. It's made from wheat, after all, that most basic, boring, foundational of foods. That's a fair point. But you might also consider the fact that grain was there at the beginning — not just of agriculture, but of civilization itself.

Josey Baker is a bread-maker of a decidedly San Francisco variety: good-looking and affable, always wearing a T-shirt and a beard, prone to spurts of idealism and dropping a few f-bombs in conversation. In a former life, he was a science teacher, but he left at age 27 on a quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread. Three-and-a-half years later, he's now part-owner of The Mill on Divisadero, a hip, white-subway-tile-bedecked partnership with Four Barrel Coffee where he sells $4 toast and $6 loaves of dark mountain rye and whole-grain wheat. Five months ago he installed a stone mill in a small room off the kitchen, and as of a few weeks ago, started selling 4-pound bags of his own freshly ground wheat and rye flours for $10 apiece, five times the cost of Safeway's refined white stuff.

Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Molly Gore
Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.
Courtesy of Community Grains
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.

The Mill is so off-the-charts twee that it sounds like something out of Portlandia, and its $4 toasts have become think-piece shorthand for a certain brand of Bay Area preciousness. But Baker's genuinely excited about his milling experiments. To him — and to a growing number of Bay Area bakers, brewers, chefs, and pasta-makers — using locally grown or freshly milled grains is as natural and necessary as sourcing local produce or grinding fresh pepper.

California's fledgling grain economy has a few big hurdles to clear before local flour catches on. There's not much knowledge about how to grow heirloom wheat and other grains well, and hardly any infrastructure to support small farmers attempting it. Not only does wheat take up a lot of farmland that could be used for more valuable crops, but once it's grown, you also need equipment and resources to thresh it, clean it, store it, and mill it before it becomes flour — significantly more work than a flat of strawberries requires. All this overhead translates to higher costs for consumers. While many of us have become resigned to paying $6 a pound for the perfect tomato, paying $2.50 a pound for artisanal flour still seems absurd.

Despite the obstacles, the farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, scientists, academics, and policy-makers involved in the project see a few major reasons to press on. Fresh local food tastes better, and rediscovered heirloom and specialty grains, as well as freshly milled flour, are giving whole-grain breads and pastas a range of flavors they haven't had in a century. They're also probably better for your health. There isn't much research yet, but many in the field believe that whole, organically grown, stone-milled grains are better for the body than processed, hybridized, conventionally grown ones. But either way, gluten's exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye. For farmers, wheat is a good rotation crop, one that doesn't require much water and has a whole romance and history to it.

Most of all, creating a local grain economy is about shedding light on a part of the food ecosystem that's been dark for a long time. I'm concerned with the sources of my food as much as any discerning eater, but until a month ago I'd never thought to wonder where my flour came from. Flour has been a cheap commodity ingredient, always there, always the same, for my lifetime, and for the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents. I'd never tasted flour fresh out of a mill, or even really knew what a mill did. I didn't understand the fundamentals of growing and harvesting wheat, and it had never occurred to me that there might be as many varieties of wheat as there are of apples or potatoes.

But then, it turned out that very few people I talked to did either, and those who did know about wheat and milling had to learn from scratch. Somewhere down the line, we lost that institutional knowledge — which is crazy not only because California used to lead the nation in wheat production, but also because bread is one of the oldest and most essential foods on earth.


Earlier this year, food guru Michael Pollan went on The Colbert Report to promote his new book, Cooked, which is all about the forces we use to transform our ingredients into meals. His basic thesis is that who cooks your food is more important than the nutritional content of the ingredients, and that food cooked by a person, rather than a corporation, is just naturally going to be better for you. He told Stephen Colbert that he could even eat a vilified food like pasta if he cooked it himself, though maybe he should make it whole wheat instead of white. "Whole-wheat pasta sucks," Colbert replied, stone-faced. The crowd went wild.

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5 comments
rlauriston
rlauriston

"gluten's exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye"

 Only among people who don't know that spelt and rye contain gluten.

chrisjuricich
chrisjuricich

God I love bread, but as my wife is Asian and has more of a preference for rice, buying a nice loaf is something of a waste or too big a calorie bomb for me to finish.

Glad to see new types of flour being promulgated--and yeah, I understand that this stuff can't be cheap for all the basic Econ 101 reasons, so for this occasional home baker of bread...fat chance! Still, as insinuated and eve stated in the article with the words 'precious' and a riff off of Portlandia, how much artisanal specific products can we stand. Forty years ago it was just organic. Now like nuances of types of rock music, food has been taken into divisible territory as artisanal, natural, gluten-free, hormone-free, and multiple other designations.

Oddly, I am at a crossroads in my life, being a person who likes to bake and cook and make my own food as inclined or able. My growing concerns about big commercial food practices has been tempered by a general effort to control my intake and portions through what might be called a loosely local and Mediterranean cuisine. I try to limit meat intake and choose other animal proteins with a bit of care. I try to be alkaline and more green in my food choices.

Now I have to face a choice of freshly milled heirloom grain products. Noooooooooo....

barmbaker
barmbaker

In answer to lisapetrison, most local Californian farmers, millers and bakers who are working to produce organic whole wheat breads and pasta, are aware of the danger of mold formation in the grain and in the flour. They work to avoid molds, which would spoil the good flavor that they are working to reveal, by keeping the grain and flour as dry as possible.

Fortunately in most of California the summer is bone dry, so that the expectation is that the grain will contain only 10% moisture, which is well below the danger level of 12% moisture.

Also, freshly stone milling this grain “as is” and using it in breads or pasta, within a week or so, and often right away in breads made by the miller-bakers, means that there is no opportunity for molds to settle into the flour. Storing the flour briefly at room temperature, avoids the condensation that would occur if the bag of flour was kept in the freezer or refrigerator, and repeatedly opened at room temperature.

These stone ground whole wheat flours are rarely sold, and where they are there is an increasingly concerted effort to present them freshly ground. No moisturizing process is used for good stone milling, so that the whole wheat flour will likely have a moisture content well below 12%, the same as the grain. These flours are intended to be used within a short time, even though theoretically all the antioxidants in a stone ground whole wheat flour, and the low moisture content, would enable a much longer shelf life.

philja
philja

Very interesting column  thanks for that. There's a bakery here (Amsterdam)that's baking whole wheat loaves since almost 90 years now.

lisapetrison
lisapetrison

So glad to see this trend!  But I would like to see more discussion of the issue of mycotoxins as well. The Bulletproof Executive has created a whole business based on "upgraded" products with low levels of mycotoxins, and it seems time for other food products to be considering the relevance of this factor too.  

Wheat flour tends to contain high amounts of certain mycotoxins (such as trichothecenes and fumonisins) that are not regulated in the U.S.  If I knew that these artisinal wheat flours were low in mycotoxins (as well as from heritage strains that are a pleasure to eat), I would buy them in a heartbeat! Otherwise, I will have to keep purchasing from Jovial, which sells the heritage einkorn type of wheat, grown in Italy where their standards with regard to mycotoxins in food are much more strict that the (non-existent) ones in the U.S.

 
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