He's right: Most whole-wheat pasta does suck. I dutifully cook it because it's supposed to be good for me, but it's terrible — the texture's all wrong, chewy rather than al dente, and the assertively nutty, almost bitter flavor gets in the way of the sauce. Then I had Bob Klein's whole-wheat pasta and realized that it can be wonderful. As proprietor of the fledgling grain company Community Grains and Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, Klein is making locally grown pasta and flour that tastes radically different from the stuff you get off the grocery store shelves.

An imposing, friendly man in his 60s with a bushy gray beard and glasses, Klein speaks about his dedication to reviving California's local grain economy with quiet, intense passion. He compares what's happening with grains now to what he saw happening with tomatoes a few decades ago, before the rise of heirlooms, when tomatoes were just the dull, watery things available regardless of season and location. "If you go to someone 25 years ago and say, I'll sell you a tomato for $6 a pound, forget about it," he says. "Now people understand that that's a real tomato because they understand the value, and chefs know what they are and understand what to do with them." The heirloom tomato movement started with interested farmers and chefs and spread outward to CSAs and farmers markets. Now they're sold at Walmart. Klein thinks that locally sourced wheat could eventually get there too.

In its "identity preserved" pastas, Community Grains also gives an unprecedented level of transparency. To Klein, you can't know your flour until you know the wheat variety, who developed it, where and how the wheat was farmed, when it was harvested, who milled it, and how it was milled. The fusilli lunghi he gave me to try was made from Desert King hard amber durum wheat developed by Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky for the University of California. It was grown on two acres at Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, planted in November 2010, harvested in June 2011. The wheat was stone-milled in April 2013 on a granite wheel, at a temperature below 110 degrees, by CCOF-certified Certified Foods Inc. in Woodland.

The story of flour, then, is a little more complicated than that of an Early Girl tomato, whose pedigree is slight by comparison: organically grown in Santa Cruz and harvested yesterday.


Community Grains works with farmers to grow boutique and heirloom varieties of wheat — yes, there are such things, tens of thousands of them — then stone-mills the wheat berries in Woodland, using a technique based on methods in France and Italy. (How flour is milled — how the whole grains are crushed — can have as radical of an impact on the final product as whether you prepare a piece of beef by braising, frying, sautéing, or dry-aging it.) Community Grains flour and pastas are sold to restaurants and bakeries, and available to the public online and at markets like Bi-Rite.

Community Grains' durum fusilli also happens to be the best whole-wheat pasta I've ever made at home — an elegant, supple noodle that doesn't even seem like the same species as its chunky, coarse supermarket counterparts. It had flavor, a delicate nuttiness, and it became another essential element of the dish, not just a delivery system for the sauce. The Community Grains soft wheat macaroni is almost like white pasta, but with just more presence — a simple plate of buttered noodles was a pleasure. Klein's restaurant, Oliveto, now bases its pasta dishes around the flavor of the grains; it's as integral to the dish as the meat.

Now going through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds of wheat a month, Community Grains is making pasta and flour on a fairly large scale, albeit nothing approaching industrial farms. But some bakers are taking things into their own hands and have started milling their own flour to make it as fresh as possible. One of the earliest local pioneers was Dave Miller, a Chico-based baker who has been at this for two decades. He's mentored a number of bread-makers, including Josey Baker and Chad Robertson from Tartine. (It's a Richard Scarry-esque coincidence that both Baker and Miller share their surname with their profession, but in another sense it's not — these roles have been so codified in our society that family names are based on them.)

Miller only bakes 400 loaves a week, which he sells for $5 a loaf at the Chico farmers' market, and mills all of his flour directly before baking with it. He's into the health benefits and supporting the local economy, but it's really the sensory elements of fresh flour that get him excited. He talks about the "wonderfully sweet aroma" and "light and fluffy and airy" consistency of fresh flour, which you can only attain if you're milling it at the source. "When you open a bag of flour two to three weeks old, it's just not there anymore. To me, it's kind of a sign of the life of the thing," he says. "Flour kind of wilts in a way, like a real flower, after it's milled. You lose the aroma and you lose the texture and I think you lose some of the nutrition too. It's hard not to use freshly milled flour after you've been milling."

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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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