SF Weekly
By Anna Roth

320px-Wheat_close-upYou’re here, so you’re probably a foodie (whether you like it or not). You’ve read everything there is to know about local sourcing and seasonal menus and the advantages of grass-fed beef. You’ve endured the rolling eyes of friends who can’t believe the prices you’re willing to pay for bacon, pickled vegetables, egg nog. You’re not alone.

But even you may find yourself wondering if things have perhaps gone a bit too far if we’re now talking about artisanal flour. It’s made from wheat, after all, that most basic, boring, foundational of foods. That’s a fair point. But you might also consider the fact that grain was there at the beginning — not just of agriculture, but of civilization itself.

Josey Baker is a bread-maker of a decidedly San Francisco variety: good-looking and affable, always wearing a T-shirt and a beard, prone to spurts of idealism and dropping a few f-bombs in conversation. In a former life, he was a science teacher, but he left at age 27 on a quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread. Three-and-a-half years later, he’s now part-owner of The Mill on Divisadero, a hip, white-subway-tile-bedecked partnership with Four Barrel Coffee where he sells $4 toast and $6 loaves of dark mountain rye and whole-grain wheat. Five months ago he installed a stone mill in a small room off the kitchen, and as of a few weeks ago, started selling 4-pound bags of his own freshly ground wheat and rye flours for $10 apiece, five times the cost of Safeway‘s refined white stuff.

The Mill is so off-the-charts twee that it sounds like something out of Portlandia, and its $4 toasts have become think-piece shorthand for a certain brand of Bay Area preciousness. But Baker’s genuinely excited about his milling experiments. To him — and to a growing number of Bay Area bakers, brewers, chefs, and pasta-makers — using locally grown or freshly milled grains is as natural and necessary as sourcing local produce or grinding fresh pepper.

California’s fledgling grain economy has a few big hurdles to clear before local flour catches on. There’s not much knowledge about how to grow heirloom wheat and other grains well, and hardly any infrastructure to support small farmers attempting it. Not only does wheat take up a lot of farmland that could be used for more valuable crops, but once it’s grown, you also need equipment and resources to thresh it, clean it, store it, and mill it before it becomes flour — significantly more work than a flat of strawberries requires. All this overhead translates to higher costs for consumers. While many of us have become resigned to paying $6 a pound for the perfect tomato, paying $2.50 a pound for artisanal flour still seems absurd.

Despite the obstacles, the farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, scientists, academics, and policy-makers involved in the project see a few major reasons to press on. Fresh local food tastes better, and rediscovered heirloom and specialty grains, as well as freshly milled flour, are giving whole-grain breads and pastas a range of flavors they haven’t had in a century. They’re also probably better for your health. There isn’t much research yet, but many in the field believe that whole, organically grown, stone-milled grains are better for the body than processed, hybridized, conventionally grown ones. But either way, gluten’s exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye. For farmers, wheat is a good rotation crop, one that doesn’t require much water and has a whole romance and history to it.

Most of all, creating a local grain economy is about shedding light on a part of the food ecosystem that’s been dark for a long time. I’m concerned with the sources of my food as much as any discerning eater, but until a month ago I’d never thought to wonder where my flour came from. Flour has been a cheap commodity ingredient, always there, always the same, for my lifetime, and for the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents. I’d never tasted flour fresh out of a mill, or even really knew what a mill did. I didn’t understand the fundamentals of growing and harvesting wheat, and it had never occurred to me that there might be as many varieties of wheat as there are of apples or potatoes.

But then, it turned out that very few people I talked to did either, and those who did know about wheat and milling had to learn from scratch. Somewhere down the line, we lost that institutional knowledge — which is crazy not only because California used to lead the nation in wheat production, but also because bread is one of the oldest and most essential foods on earth.

Earlier this year, food guru Michael Pollan went on The Colbert Report to promote his new book, Cooked, which is all about the forces we use to transform our ingredients into meals. His basic thesis is that who cooks your food is more important than the nutritional content of the ingredients, and that food cooked by a person, rather than a corporation, is just naturally going to be better for you. He told Stephen Colbert that he could even eat a vilified food like pasta if he cooked it himself, though maybe he should make it whole wheat instead of white. “Whole-wheat pasta sucks,” Colbert replied, stone-faced. The crowd went wild.

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 based on a proprietary technique that Klein picked up in 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.”

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 a 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.

One of the major drivers of this movement is the country’s sudden, collective hysteria over gluten. As people with wheat intolerances (real or imagined) are seeking out alternatives to processed white flour and providing a market for these whole grain experiments, scientists and nutritionists have turned their attention to understanding why a nation of people is suddenly allergic to one of the most fundamental foods in history. Many believe that the culprit isn’t gluten at all, which is after all just protein, but could be the way that commercial, industrial flour is grown and processed.

Modern, industrial wheat is bred for qualities like durability, yield, and disease-resistance, not for nutrition or flavor. Like an egg, a wheat berry has three parts — a husk, or shell; a germ, or yolk, which produces life; and a starchy white endosperm that has about as much nutritional value as an egg white. To make white flour, millers strip the berry of its husk and germ, leaving only the carbohydrates. They started doing this with the development of the roller mill in the late 19th century to prolong the shelf life, because the germ will cause the flour to go rancid, and for consistency, because the bran and germ create sharp edges that can pierce gluten and stop bread from rising.

White flour is so reviled in health circles because it’s basically just refined carbohydrates, which cause blood sugar to spike, but doesn’t offer anything else. Even whole-wheat flour made industrially isn’t much better for you: It’s made like white flour, but with the ground-up seed and germ put in at the end, though the integrity of the berry has been compromised (there is also some concern that the entire whole grain isn’t put back at the end; the FDA guidelines for “whole grain” only require the item is 51 percent whole grain by weight). True whole-grain flour, crushed in a stone mill, contains all the parts of the seed, and many believe that it’s better for those with wheat intolerance.

Three years ago, Marin baker Craig Ponsford switched to local whole-grain flour and hasn’t looked back. Ponsford was formerly co-owner of Artisan Bakery in Sonoma, which sells thousands of its baguettes, ciabatta, sourdough loaves, and other white breads a day. But he was concerned with the health benefits and hooked up with Community Grains, and now sells his whole-grain bread, pastries, and pie crusts at his San Rafael bakery, Ponsford’s Place, open only two days a week. “I’m the only bakery that I know of that is 100 percent whole grain. I jumped off the cliff,” he says.

But Ponsford is upfront about the fact that the science is just not there to back up the health benefits he feels are there in his gut — it’s such a new field that the studies just haven’t been done yet. He’s working with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Oakland, part of the Community Grains group, to test the benefits of whole-grain versus whole-wheat flour. But he says he’s seen results. Some of his customers have diabetes or wheat intolerances. “People [in my bakery] are having really good experiences when they eat whole wheat,” he says. “So I have instincts around that, but that’s not science either.” He also admits, wryly, that people are brainwashed easily enough when it comes to new health fads in their diets.

One of the many ironies of this “new” field is that it’s actually one of civilization’s oldest. Humans have been crushing grains between stones for 9,000 years, but the past 150 years of industrialization severed the basic line of communication between farmer, miller, and baker necessary to create a local grain ecosystem. It’s taking some doing to bring it back.

At a point in the not-too-distant past, all this infrastructure and knowledge existed in California. The Native Americans cultivated grains, and the missionaries brought soft Sonoran wheat to the area along with wine grapes and olive trees for oil-making — the necessary foods of sacrament. In the mid- to late-19th century, California was a national leader in wheat production, most of it shipped from San Francisco Bay to Great Britain. The Central Valley farmers fighting against Southern Pacific Railroad in Frank Norris‘ seminal California novel, The Octopus, are wheat farmers. Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino counties grew wheat before they planted orchards and then wine grapes.

But in the late 1800s the Midwest figured out how to grow hard red wheat, ideal for making white bread, and had a lot of land to grow it on. California developed irrigation, enabling farmers to grow more lucrative crops like fruit, nuts, and greens that the rest of the country couldn’t. Wheat became an anonymous commodity crop, bought and sold on the market like soybeans and cattle, and industrial wheat farming got bigger and faster, abetted by improvements in fertilizer and herbicides. Slowly but surely, the local grain culture died in California. The state still grows about 750,000 acres of commodity wheat, most of it exported internationally, but local farmers and millers looking to do things on a small scale are having to learn about one of the world’s oldest crops by trial and error.

Wheat isn’t a lucrative crop for California farmers, but there are reasons to grow it anyway: It’s a good cover crop for field rotation, it doesn’t require irrigation, and there’s a certain romance to it. At least that’s what drew Peter Buckley to wheat-growing. He bought Front Porch Farms in Healdsburg as a late-career shift from consulting, and ripped out 60 acres of underperforming vineyards to make room for an orchard, a vegetable garden, and 20 acres of grains. “There’s something about a field of wheat that is … it’s beautiful, but somehow it makes me feel wealthy. But it’s a funny idea of wealth,” he says. “It just seems like such a miraculous thing, you plant these seeds and then pretty soon you see a field that’s golden and you can see the wheat heavy on the plant, and it’s amazing.”

Buckley has a mill, and grows six varieties of grain that he supplies to Community Grains and local restaurants, including an Italian durham for pasta he’s trying out specifically for Klein. (He also tried growing einkorn for Robertson at Tartine, which didn’t work very well — the varieties they’ve tried to date just don’t grow in Northern California — but he’s imported some seeds from southern France, where it thrives, and is trying again this fall.)

A major reason that Buckley, and people like Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards, who is growing six acres of wheat on his 120-acre Dry Creek farm and winery, are able to experiment with growing wheat in small batches is largely thanks to a neighborly obsessive named Doug Mosel. The nearly 80-year-old farmer heads up a 5-year-old CSA-like grainshare called Mendocino Grain Collective, and owns the necessary equipment, like vintage combines, grain drills, seed cleaners, and so on, to process grains on a small scale.

Mosel‘s on a single-minded mission to revive the local grain economy in Mendocino County, and grows a variety of his own grains in the Russian River Valley while helping small farmers process their own. He’s willing to harvest as little as an acre of wheat for an enthusiastic tinkerer, and has lately been working with winemakers to experiment with growing wheat between the vine rows (a smart dual use of valuable land).

This kind of infrastructure-building is also very much on the mind of Klein as he works to build a statewide system. “I think of Community Grains as fundamentally an information company,” he says, and talks about things like a recent “sensational meeting on [grain] cleaning and storage” he hosted at Oliveto with the fervent enthusiasm common to the wheat community.

The result of the community-building efforts of Klein, Mosel, and people like Monica Spiller — a vociferous advocate for local grains who owns a seed bank in Mountain View — is that farmers, millers, and bakers have the necessary momentum to rebuild the grain ecosystem. Many participate in a lively Google Group called the North Coast Grain Growers, where wheat geeks can troubleshoot problems, share successes, argue over the proper fineness of flour, and get everyone excited about a new kind of Spanish bearded spelt they just tried.

Preston, of Preston Vineyards, sees a corollary to the experiments in winemaking in Napa and Sonoma 35 years ago that put those regions on the map. “You know, we didn’t know a lot. … It was really learning by doing. So here we are all over again,” he says.

If you talk to the local bakers, farmers, and millers pushing this movement forward, you’ll realize that they each have their own intense, almost religious devotion to How Things Should Be Done, and their credos often contradict. So much of this stuff is still being figured out, and no one knows for sure what will happen when we start playing with these grains. You’ll also realize the absurdity of this: that the flavor and nutrition we coax from new grains could fundamentally change the way we think about flour. So yes, it’s a new frontier for bread.

Which is pretty mind-blowing, when you think about it. As one of the last major areas of the food pyramid to go local (legumes still have a way to go), whole grains are also one of the most foundational. Food has never been so globalized and the boundaries of edibility never so enthusiastically explored as right now (Korean tacos are so five years ago; the hip thing to eat right now is crickets and pigs’ feet). And then, here’s wheat, the most ordinary and basic of foods, which turns out to be one of the most exciting of all.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that this movement isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s got too much going for it: the local food movement, the renewed interest in wheat and other grains, the likely shortage of water in the next century. As we talk about fixing our broken food ecosystem, local grains will have to be a part of the solution.

So yes, there will be a day when you feel as passionately about soft Sonoran and hard Red Fife wheat as you do about Honeycrisp and Pink Lady apples. You’ll pay $10 for a bag of flour, and engage your local baker in ridiculous, detailed conversation about where his flour comes from. Artisanal grains are just one more piece of the ever-expanding food puzzle to worry about. But it’s about time, since it was also the beginning of it all.

Stay Engaged

Sign up for The Cornucopia Institute’s eNews and action alerts to stay informed about organic food and farm issues.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.