Local Grain

Local Grain from Field to Plate: Part II

(see Edible East Bay Fall/Winter 2010 for Part I)

By Elizabeth Linhart Money


Photo: Northern-California-grown grain going into the stone mill at Miller’s Bakehouse near Chico. (by Earl Bloor of Edible Shasta-Butte).

It’s late autumn 2010, wheat-planting time in the Central Valley. The 600 loamy Yolo County acres where farmer Nick Charles grows grain for the Rominger Brothers Farm have just been tilled.

In a typical year, Charles would be about to sow this field—a small portion of the Romingers’ 4,000 acres of row crops—with a wheat variety chosen in consultation with a representative from the local grain elevator, a crucial middleman between commodity grain farmers and the millers and industrial bakeries who are their buyers. Rick Rominger, a fifth-generation farmer, would have learned which grain varieties will likely score the highest price, a calculation based on the characteristics buyers are looking for and the harvest outlook for the rest of the country. He would then decide which varieties best suit his land, and have his fields sown with the assurance of having a guaranteed buyer.

But this is not a typical year. After long discussion with various parties interested in establishing a local grain trade, the Romingers are stepping boldly out of the commodity market, which they see as undervaluing their grain, and planting a crop intended for direct sale to bakers and pasta makers around the Bay Area.

The Baker’s View

Steve Sullivan, owner and co-founder of Acme Bakery, describes how building a successful local grain trade “depends on finding the holes in the puzzle.” He’s been searching out those holes since before his bakery went organic in 1999. “I would love to use wheat that is grown only 100 miles from here,” he explains, “but it is really a question of the results you can get [from the wheat].”

And it’s also the price. As an artisan baker, Sullivan can’t easily reduce labor costs through automation to make up for the higher costs of purchasing organic wheat from nearby farms. Nor does he have the advantage enjoyed by restaurateurs, who, as he explains, “can take a pound of flour, make three batches of pasta, and sell them for $15 each, where a baker can only sell a loaf of bread for $4.”

In order to keep the $4 loaf, Acme gets its flour from various farms in California and throughout the Midwest. “If you look at a map of wheat-growing regions around the country,” says Sullivan, “every year one of these places will have a blank spot because something happened and they didn’t produce. So it is not all that practical to work with only certain farmers.”

Acting as the link between the field and Sullivan’s bread ovens is Keith Giusto Bakery Supply (known in the trade as Central Milling). “We have a unique arrangement,” Sullivan explains, “Keith finds what the farmers have and then works with our lead baker to come up with certain blends.” Once the flour arrives, it requires the skilled hand of a seasoned baker to navigate the yearly variations of varieties and growing conditions. Sullivan estimates that the bakery receives a different blend three to four times per year and each time they must determine how the flour reacts to water, yeast, and temperature, tweaking recipes accordingly.

Sullivan illustrates this point recounting his experience with Yecora Rojo, a hard red California wheat that he first encountered when it was donated for Slow Food Nation in 2008. “We made 100 percent whole-wheat bread and were pleasantly surprised,” he recalls. Based on that result, he asked Giusto to start sourcing the cultivar last year. When the flour began arriving however, first results were not encouraging.

“But then we started playing around with it,” Sullivan says, explaining how they have been experimenting with tempering the grain by adding moisture prior to milling, and by using only stoneground flour. “The bread has great texture and we are amazed by how flavorful it is,” he says. “It’s a really wonderful wheat.”

I ask Sullivan if he has had any luck using soft wheat varieties for bread. I wonder if adding those to their baking roster would give bakers more to play with in terms of texture and flavor, while also offering farmers greater flexibility on what varieties work best on their land.

“We have long suspected that some of the harder soft wheats would be just as good as hard red winter wheat,” he replies. “Some have a very promising profile.”

A Fine Messdough

Milling, water, and a touch of alchemy are required for wheat to become bread. When water is added to wheat flour, a pair of proteins contained in the flour bind together to make long chains of amino acids. This web-like structure, known as gluten, is what allows leavened dough to rise—by retaining the gas emitted by the yeast—and then hold its shape while baking. Good protein generally equals good bread, but it is not everything.

The tiny wheat berry is a mess of different types of proteins, starches, fats, sugars, minerals, and vitamins. The quantity, quality, and distribution of these components are dependent on the variety of wheat and its growing conditions. Bob Klein, owner of Oliveto restaurant and founder of Community Grains, discovered this when he tried to reproduce the quality of pasta he found in the Piedmont region of Italy by planting plots of the Italian wheat at Rominger Brothers’ Farm. To his surprise, the California-grown wheat had an extremely different character than its Italian counterpart. “It makes sense,” he says. “There, those varieties grow at nearly 2,000 feet, and here they were planted nearly at sea level.”

To learn more about how different wheat varieties perform, I pay a visit to an unassuming business park in Woodland, 12 miles north of Davis, where the California Wheat Commission (CWC) helps to decipher the grain’s interior life. Janice Cooper, the organization’s executive director, says that the past year has seen interest in local wheat rise dramatically, with a similar uptick for California wheat in general. She introduces me to the laboratory director, Sam Huang, who is awaiting a visitor who seeks to know how well a whole-wheat durum flour will work for pasta. Shaking his head, Huang says that whole wheat generally doesn’t make very good pasta.

At Huang’s disposal are various machines that look like they belong on the set of a 1960s science-fiction TV show. Despite their antique appearance, these instruments can provide sophisticated analyses of the moisture, protein, starch, and ash content in a kernel of wheat as well as the strength, plasticity, and elasticity of the dough that can be made using flour from that kernel. If a grower would like to see for himself how the wheat does as pasta or bread, Huang will extrude spaghetti or bake small “pup loaves” of bread for an additional fee.

To those uninitiated in the science of wheat, it can be difficult to understand how two seemingly identical pup loaves differ. Patiently, Huang explains that the loaf made with hard red wheat will have stronger gluten and better texture than the one made with a soft white variety. “It really has to do with the way the proteins and starches interact,” Huang says. Proteins in hard wheat are strong enough that when milled they break apart into larger, more complete chunks, which facilitates strong gluten development. By contrast, the proteins present in soft wheat are finer and evenly dispersed among more numerous starch particles and air pockets, making long chains of gluten unlikely to develop.

Could soft wheats that have tested with high protein levels be used in bread? I ask. Huang’s answer is a simple “no.”

Of course, artisans will experiment anyway, I’m thinking as I recall tasting at the Chico Farmers’ Market a loaf made with flour milled from Northern California–grown soft Sonora wheat. The baker, Dave Miller of Miller’s Bakehouse, runs a one-man milling and baking operation near Chico, hand-grinding locally grown organic grains in a small stone mill and baking them in a wood-fired oven. He explained that since Sonora doesn’t have the gluten strength to hold its shape independently while baking, he bakes it in a loaf pan with good results. The slice he cut from the square loaf was unusually moist and delicate for whole wheat. The crumb was fine and made a lattice around the small, evenly dispersed air pockets.

Huang admits that tests in the lab are generally geared toward mass standards set by the large industrial bakeries that produce most loaves of bread on the market. In facilities that more closely resemble factories than bakeries, eight to sixteen people might work to produce anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 loaves a day. Wheat for the flour is sourced from as many as a hundred different farms, and judged in a series of numbers calculated at a laboratory rather than by flavor. Pup loaves, for example, are made with yeast, sugar, salt, shortening, and ascorbic acid (a popular preservative), mimicking industrial baked bread instead of the slow-rise, naturally fermented product of artisan bakers.

Still, the CWC wants to work with those artisan bakers and farmers interested in breaking the industrial mold. With efforts like forging a relationship with CCOF (the organic certification and trade association) and helping independent farmers get funding for infrastructure development, Cooper believes that the CWC can be a crucial link in the revival of a more diverse regional grain trade. “But,” she says, “If you are interested in local wheat, you really should talk to Joe over at Certified Foods.”

Nose to the Grindstone

Joe is Joseph Vanderliet. Certified Foods is a small flour mill five minutes away from Cooper’s Woodland office. In many ways, this mill is the heart of the local grain movement. When I ask why 90 percent of his flour is milled from California grain, Vanderliet replies simply, “Why should we go out of state, if California wheat performs? Why spend the money on freight?”

Established in 1992, Certified Foods markets its own flour blends under the “Joseph’s Best” label, while also grinding grain for distributors like Bob Klein’s Community Grains and for individual farmers such as Rominger Brothers, who recently delivered half a pallet of durum to be milled for pasta. Certified Foods links farmers to bakers and works to preserve the identity of each variety of wheat, something that Cooper, Klein, and Rominger all see as crucial for the market success of local heritage wheat.

Klein credits Vanderliet’s milling skill as key to transforming California wheat into high-quality flour. Not only is Vanderliet’s mill small enough that he can finesse the best out of each variety, but he also uses a unique combination of grindstones and steel rollers. With these, he carefully grinds whole-grain flour in a way that preserves its nutritional value, while creating a product that behaves much like white flour. Though he is reluctant to go into the details of his operation, he does say, “We are in a moment of transition. We are in the middle of a renaissance in milling.”

Vanderliet began his career in the Midwest as a grain buyer for Archer Daniels Midland, and has attended both baking and brewing schools. Eventually, he located in Oakland, opening what was then the country’s most advanced flour mill. He soon grew frustrated by how many nutrients were lost in conventional milling, where the only goal seemed to be to produce the whitest of flour.

To emphasize his point, he holds up two bar graphs: The first charts the nutrients left in refined flour; the second is a list of the major micronutrient deficiencies in the USA. They could be pieces of the same puzzle. It is no secret how the removal of the bran and germ, along with the heat of the rollers, robs the wheat of its vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty oils. “Our addiction to refined flour is a major health crisis,” the miller says, “and is something I aim to resolve in my lifetime.”

Good to his word, Vanderliet’s Certified Foods is certified organic and grinds only whole-grain flour. Still reluctant to give any secrets away, he tells me that an important step is ensuring that the wheat is in good condition. “We only use wheat that could be planted in the ground and produce two leaves and a split root,” he says, using his broad hands for emphasis. “If it’s going to be food,” he concludes, “you want it to be alive.”

Leaving Vanderliet’s office in the late autumn afternoon, I am reminded of two things. The first is Bob Klein’s musing back in August of the meaning of eating locally. “What is the issue?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it about organic? Better tasting food? Leaving a smaller carbon footprint? For me, it’s ‘I know a guy who is a farmer, and he knows a guys who’s a miller, then someone else knows someone who is a baker . . . ’ and on and on. It’s about making connections, passing along valuable information, and building community.” The second thing to cross my mind is the thought that, not too long ago, and in nearly every community, the farmer, the miller, and the baker formed a triad that was in large part responsible for the health of the community. •

Above (top to bottom): In the Oliveto kitchen, chefs prepare Parker House rolls, mostacciolo, and a variety of pastries using whole-grain flour made from hard red and hard white winter wheats and a hard amber durum wheat. (Photos by Teal Dudziak)

Elizabeth Linhart Money is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her article “Koda Farms: A family history in rice” won a 2010 Edible Communities “Eddy” award as “Best Editorial: Historial Subject,” and her Edible East Bay article “Turning Kernels into Gold” appears in Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods. She can be reached at elizabethlinhart@yahoo.com.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.