I had my first encounter with just-milled flour at The Mill. It was more fluffy and dynamic in texture than supermarket flour, less like talcum powder, and had a toasty aroma, a sweet, earthy flavor, and none of the bitterness I usually associate with whole wheat. I'll be damned, I thought. I've eaten calf's brain, sea cucumber, and grasshopper, but until this moment I've never really tasted flour before.

Baker also gave me a hunk of an experimental loaf he'd made earlier that day, a blend of white khorasan, red wheat, and white wheat. It was undeniably whole-wheat bread, but had a whole extra dimension of depth and character. To Baker and others, the quest for new flavors is also about mining the possibilities in the wide world of grains. Most of the wheat grown in this country is a type known as hard red, but there are tens of thousands of varieties of wheat in the world, including some of the oldest grains on earth: emmer, Kamut, einkorn, and spelt. "It's like you're painting and you just have three colors to work with, and all of a sudden there's like 10," Baker says. "At the core of it, for me, is that this whole venture is driven by curiosity."

Few people are taking this knowledge quest more seriously than Tartine's Chad Robertson — another youngish, bearded, handsome San Francisco baker, rightfully considered one of the best in the country. Tartine is famous for its white country loaf with thick, crackling crust and silky, supple crumb, and Robertson and his team are building on that DNA to play the edges of what its bread can be.

In his new cookbook, Tartine Book No. 3, which hits shelves Dec. 17, Robertson offers recipes for alien-sounding things like sprouted buckwheat-einkorn loaves, wheat-spelt crispbreads, and chamomile-Kamut shortbread. Some were served at the book's release party, cooked by Chez Panisse alum Samin Nosrat. The kefir-Kamut crust on a galette was so sweet and flaky and buttery that it was hard to believe it was made with an "ancient grain" formerly associated with hippie moms.

Robertson became interested in these heirloom grains during a trip to Denmark, where he sampled bread made with heirloom Danish wheat connected to restaurant/think tank Noma. Now he's working on sourcing them, in some cases partnering with local farmers to grow some of these obscure grains in small batches.

He believes that these grains are probably easier for the body to digest, but he's also interested in the broadened flavor possibilities they represent. Some of the grains he's looking to bring over from Scandinavia aren't necessarily the ancient ones, but have been saved over the past century because people love the way they taste. "Heirloom, I guess, means singled out," he says. "We love this because it's sweet and buttery and we're going to keep growing this and try and make sure this kind of stays like this."

In order to keep experimenting, Robertson's finally ready to open his own mill in San Francisco. Right now his flour supplier is milling these weird grains for him as a favor, and Robertson doesn't want to lean on his friend forever. Though he says he will never mill all of Tartine's flour himself — his long-time source, Central Milling, supplies more than 100 bakeries in the Bay Area and is widely considered the best and most responsibly sourced commercial flour on the market — he does want the freedom to keep messing around with the smaller specialty grains.

Setting up a mill is a major step, though, and one that Robertson's undertaking with Ahab-like intensity. He's not convinced that a stone mill is the best technology out there, and is traveling the world to learn all he can about milling techniques. There is indeed more than one way to grind a grain, it turns out: Robertson has visited Japanese udon-flour mills and Swedish vortex mills, and looked into big-ag technology like roller mills — all of which crush the wheat berry in different ways and to different degrees of fineness, which can affect the final product. "I've been at this a long time. I'm not the new baker anymore, and I feel a responsibility to research things," he says. Bakers look to Tartine for guidance on ovens and flour, and Robertson is aware that what he does will set a precedent.

"If people are going to look at what I set up when I set up a mill, I want it to be something that will make the most nutritious [flour] and preserve as many vitamins and minerals as possible and have the best flavor," he says. "I don't really have that knowledge right now, but I'm going to the people that do and I'm going to figure it out."

To that end, Robertson recently spent a few days soaking up information at Washington State University wheat research and breeding center an hour north of Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is one of many parts of the country where a local grain economy is emerging. There are thriving pockets of experimentation with local, heritage grains in Arizona, North Carolina, upstate New York, Oregon, the Midwest. Los Angeles is about to open a boutique "urban flour mill" in Pasadena (of course). In a neat bit of groupthink, all of these cells have formed across the country nearly independently of each other, but are now connecting and sharing information.

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"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.


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....


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.


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


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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