Two trends for bakeries, one encouraging and one dismal
It’s hard to imagine a vibrant local-food economy without a vibrant bakery scene. The capacity to efficiently turn something as bland as flour into something delicious and substantial seems key.
In energy terms, baking several hundred loaves of bread a day in a commercial operation makes more sense than every family cranking out a loaf a day in the home oven — especially if the bakery is centrally located. (Not that I don’t love home-baking.)
I’m thinking about the "staff of life" today because two bakery-related news items crossed my desk.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.
This Sacremento Bee article describes the closing of a an establishment called Muzio Bakery, which had supplied local businesses in the California capital with bread for 79 years. Here’s how the Bee article describes the closing:
Rocked by high prices for ingredients such as flour and soybean oil, soaring fuel and labor costs and increased competition from all directions, many independent bakers are fighting to survive. Some, like Sacramento landmark Muzio, are losing.
The main factor, evidently, was the rise in the price of flour. Prices have come down recently, but remain at elevated levels by historic standards. The closing fits within the context of a national trend. Here is the Bee:
“The volatility with the changes that have come to pass has been so great, so abrupt and so continuous that some independents maybe didn’t have the resources to match the situation,” said L. Joshua Sosland, editor of Milling & Baking News, a baking industry journal.
Another bakery industry watcher tells the Bee:
“It’s a very tough time. The bakery in Sacramento is not alone. It’s literally a perfect storm right now,” said Nicholas Pyle, president of the Independent Bakers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “The small independent and the large wholesaler are in a precarious situation.”
But just as local baking infrastructure comes under severe economic pressure, The New York Times brings news of an encouraging counter-trend: small-scale wheat production and milling are undergoing a revival. Check this out:
In New Mexico, a cooperative of Native American and Latino farmers produce a boutique local flour. In Western Massachusetts, a baking couple has persuaded their customers to plant front-lawn wheat patches. In Vermont, a farmer whose homegrown wheat flour was a curiosity when he began growing it in the 1970s now can’t keep up with demand. And in Pennsylvania, a venerable pastry flour brand from the 1800s has been resurrected, made with local organic wheat.
And look, in some places, bakers and farmers are joining forces:
In New York, a consortium of farmers and bakers called Northeast Organic Wheat is challenging the assumption that the state’s soil and climate make high-quality wheat impossible. “That’s what I heard that frustrated me 10 years ago, you can’t grow it here,” said [an NY wheat farmer]. “That’s like saying to me, go do it.”
This is significant. In the past several decades, U.S. wheat and flour production has become increasingly concentrated in the northwest corner of the Midwest. As that process played out, local and regional grain-milling infrastructure was dismantled, farmer knowledge about how to grow wheat in various microclimates evaporated, and wheat varieties appropriate to most regions have been disappearing.
The result has been utterly uniform flour responsible for some of the lameness of industrially produced U.S. bread. Of course, a skilled artisinal baker can turn conventional flour into art, but these revived local flours give bakers whole new pathways to doughy excellence.
And if the revival in local-flour infrastructure continues and matures, local bakeries can become insulated from the gyrations of global grain markets. I love the idea of farmer-baker partnerships. Such arrangements can give farmers a cut of the final bread price (the so called “value added” to their flour in the form of baked goods) and bakers a steady supply of flour at a predictable, rational price.
It bears mentioning that bread and beer have been linked as long as agriculture has been practiced. Why not devote some of the land now being used to grow local wheat to barley — and then start supplying local brewers? The mind reels at the prospect of such truly regionalised beer production.
And because the long-distance market isn’t going anywhere, bakers and brewers could still buy commodity grain inputs in times of local shortfall.
Of course, this budding bread/beer utopia is a long way off. Over most of our land, grain-processing gear is non-existent, and the knowledge necessary for growing wheat has withered away.
Meanwhile, even in places where local heirloom grain is available, there are growing pains. In New York City, for example, the very good mid-sized bakery Amy’s Bread isn’t quite sold on the idea of small-batch artisinal flour. You see, locally produced flour presents a major challenge: it doesn’t offer uniform protein/gluten content like commodity flour does, meaning bakers constantly have to adjust recipes.
Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in Manhattan, who has tried to use small-batch regional flour in her bakery but found it too inconsistent in quality and supply. She likes the principle of a baker responding to the quirks and nuances of flour, she said, but expecting her entire staff to do so on the fly is impractical. And if something goes wrong, a botched batch could mean 400 pounds of dough in the trash.
“Our wholesale customers are restaurants and stores,” Ms. Scherber said. “If you send a flat-looking loaf of bread, they’ll say, we don’t like it.”
This episode recalls Wendel Berry’s recent words about what he called the “universal necessity of local adaptation” — not an easy process, but not without its rewards, including culinary ones.