Against the grain of industrial agriculture, truly local bread stages a comeback
Photo: April McGregerOn a recent vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, I headed to the market to get a loaf of bread. Asheville is home to a large a number of small-scale bakeries, many of which sell primarily at tailgate markets and wholesale to nearby specialty food shops.
I found the market shelves stocked with lovely loaves of ciabatta, baguette, marble rye, and challah, but I was most intrigued by a few loaves that I knew at first glance were special. Packaged in brown paper bags with a hand-stamped wood-cut logo, the loaves were not internationally known bread classics. Instead, their labels heralded unusual ingredients: “Heirloom Grit” and “Kamut.” These intriguing loaves came from a bakery called Farm and Sparrow.
I couldn’t resist calling up David Bauer, Farm and Sparrow’s owner and baker, to arrange a visit. Through my talk with Bauer, I realized he represents a new type of baker. He sees himself as part of a larger decentralized, healthy, and diverse food system. The kamut, spelt, and buckwheat that you find in Farm and Sparrow’s breads are known as landrace grains–grains that developed in the absence of modern breeding techniques. Landrace grains tend to be tougher, more resilient, and not dependent on chemical fertilizers, intense irrigation, and pesticides in order to survive.
Bauer sells his breads at the tailgate farmer’s markets throughout the Asheville area. He is deeply committed to his local food community. Unlike most bakers who buy flour, Bauer sources whole grains, which he grinds himself the same day he makes his bread.
For him, the ideal would be to source grain locally. But finding locally or even regionally grown grain is nearly impossible in the United States today. The reason for this scarcity lies in the industrialization of agriculture over the last century, which went hand in hand with the consolidation of food processing.
A loaf of bread made of locally grown and stone-ground grains requires a certain kind of infrastructure that disappeared almost completely from our national landscape in the 1880s, with the introduction of the steel-roller mill and the rise hard Midwest-grown wheat. The steel-roller mill could efficiently remove the perishable germ and bran from wheat berries, creating a shelf-stable flour that could easily travel long distances.
Before this development, local mills had been necessary because flour had a shelf life of approximately one week. After, flour could be stored for months. Scalping the bran and the germ from wheat, however, meant stripping away key nutrients and fiber. This technological advance represented a nutritional step backward.
Flour then went on to be the first food to be centrally produced and widely distributed. What essentially amounted to the dumping of cheap, Midwest-grown wheat on the rest of the country resulted in the erosion of regional grain markets as local farmers couldn’t compete with the prices of cheap Midwestern wheat. The new roller mill technology also didn’t work as well on the softer wheat varieties that grew in most of the rest of the country. So the disappearance of the small stone mill meant the disappearance of softer varieties of wheat as well–and the homogenization of U.S. bread making.
In the 125 years since, this transformation has been little noticed and mostly forgotten. Then in 2007-2008, global wheat prices soared for a variety of reasons, ranging from the U.S. biofuel boom to a drought in Australia’s bread basket. Suddenly, bakers had to begin thinking hard about this fundamental ingredient that they had long taken for granted. Was it really worth it to pay top dollar for the same old mediocre hard-wheat flour they had been using for years? They began to see how their total reliance on Midwest wheat affected their regional food security–and, given the sudden prices volatility, their very viability as businesses. By fall 2008, high flour prices had pushed bakeries nationwide into a state of crisis.
Photo: April McGregerIt was through my conversation with Bauer that I first learned of a group of bakers, millers, and farmers in North Carolina working collectively to do something about it by bringing back regional grain husbandry through the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project.
Jennifer Lapidus, an immensely talented and principled bread baker of the now defunct Natural Bridge Bakery, is the project manager of the grant. She brings her experience as a baker to the table in hopes that by working cooperatively the group can successfully navigate the tricky task of developing supply and demand simultaneously.
I headed back out to Asheville a few weeks later for the Artisan Bread Festival to learn more about the NCOBFP, a major topic of discussion for this year’s event. Glenn Roberts of South Carolina-based Anson Mills–which has done amazing work preserving southern grain traditions–was a featured speaker. He gave bakers some insight into the grain husbandry of yesteryear and a glimpse of our future as breadmakers.
Roberts predicted that we are moving back towards the old tradition of an average of 30 mills per county. Modern laboratory-developed wheat is failing us, he said: yields are plummeting as salt builds up in the soil from excessive irrigation. Meanwhile, new diseases pop up faster than the labs can generate resistant strands. The solution lies in biodiversity: a move back to region-appropriate, more robust wheat varieties, grown not in vast uniform fields but rather in combination with other crops.
In order to grow wheat while maintaining the health of the land, one also has to grow buckwheat, sorghum, and cowpeas– a legume that fixes nitrogen, suppresses a pest called nematodes, and keeps down weeds. Reviving regional grain-growing means a return to whole-system agriculture, and Roberts predicts it will happen sooner than we think.
For the health of people, of communities, and of the land, I stand with a group of micro-scale bakers like Lapidus and Bauer, who are ready to take on the challenge of developing intensely flavorful bread and pastries with unstandardized, capricious, and diverse locally produced grains.
Market Brown Bread
Making yeasted breads with small batch flours requires a bit of experimentation, scientific inquiry, careful observation, and an open mind. Anson Mills has a wonderful, informative website with lots of well tested recipes for using their products. If you are lucky enough to find a farmer growing wheat or cornmeal for sale at your farmer’s market, I find it easiest to first experiment with quickbreads, biscuits, and pancakes. If you can’t find locally grown grain in your area, let your favorite farmers know you would be a regular buyer if they grew it. Here’s a quick and easy recipe for a very satisfying, unyeasted brown bread that was the first bread I made with 100 percent locally grown grains. Feel free to experiment with your grains since the bread is quite forgiving. Unlike most quickbreads, this one is not a dessert bread but the perfect accompaniment to dinner. With a simple carrot-ginger soup, it makes a lovely spring meal.
3 cups whole wheat flour (or rye or ground oats)
1 cup cornmeal (or other grain)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 3/4 – 2 cups buttermilk
2 Tablespoons sorghum, molasses, honey or maple syrup
4 Tablespoons melted butter
(optional – a handful of raisins or nuts)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 1 pound loaf pan and dust it with cornmeal. Set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and the buttermilk. Beat in the butter and the sorghum. Stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture. Different flours absorb different amounts of liquid so you may need to add another splash or two of buttermilk to get your batter to the right consistency. It should be thick but still pourable. Spoon it into the loaf pan and cook for 50 minutes on the middle rack. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the bread dough, and it should come out clean. If your bread is getting too dark on top, you can cover the top loosely with foil. Let the bread cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then remove from the tin onto a rack to cool at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve warm with fresh butter.
Makes 1 loaf.