Monday, September 17, 2012

Kneading Conference West 2012

Don't you love it when you find yourself in a crowd of people and experience an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and belonging? I know I do although it doesn't happen to me very often because outside immediate circles of intimacy, love and friendship, I am usually an outsider looking in. Having now lived in the United States for as long as I have lived in France, I am truly bicultural. In practical terms it means that due to the twin sets of references I carry in my head and heart, I never completely blend in on either side of the Atlantic. Truth be told, I cherish (and maybe nurture) this internal divide: exile is very much my country of choice and I have come to rather enjoy the exquisite ache of nostalgia and longing, especially in today's connected world where the other side is only a click away.
Still I love to belong as much as the next person and at the Kneading Conference West, this  year as last year, I found myself both part of a larger whole and at one with it. Loosely defined, the Conference (co-sponsored in part by the Bread Bakers Guild of America) is a gathering of bakers (both home bakers and professionals), millers, growers and brewers all interested in bringing local grains back to their communities. Last year we mostly talked about reviving cultures which had thrived in the Pacific Northwest since the nineteenth century before agribusiness decided it would be more profitable for these grains to be grown on a massive scale in the Midwest. This year, we discussed moving forward and finding ways to sustain the renaissance of local grains overtime, be it wheat, barley, rye or spelt, to name only a few.
Having grown up on local food (my grandparents grew, raised and foraged for a large part of what we ate, not to mention the hunting for small game that went on in the fall in the nearby woods), I have a deep respect for terroir and man's connection to the land and I love it that there is a movement afoot in America away from industrial and processed food. I still remember my shock when we moved to New York in 1979 and I first saw baguettes at the supermarket. I picked one up from the bin where it stood, wrapped in plastic, among several other pale companions, I lifted it out. To my surprise and consternation, it bowed deeply forward and remained that way all the way home. Due to the then-prevalent preference for overmixing and fast fermentations, bread was generally mediocre in France at the time we moved, so it isn't as if I had left behind a continent of fragrant and crusty loaves. Still I had never seen such pliable bread and it was depressing. It took many years, the publication of Nancy Silverton's Breads of the La Bread Bakery and my discovery of levain before we had baguettes on the table again on a regular basis.
So the local theme is one which resonates with me but it wasn't until keynotes speakers Andrew Whitley of Bread Matters and Naomi Duguid, co-author (among many other books) of Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas - a book I own since 1997 and still always open with a sense of wonder - started talking about their experiences that it all coalesced in my mind. Nancy Silverton and many other talented bakers after her taught us traditional French methods of bread-baking focusing on gentle mixing and long fermentations. Such baking is mostly based on a type of flour that offers reasonably consistent results because it comes from a blend of grains chosen for their baking properties, that is to say commercial white flour.
If we want to use more local grains (and we do or we wouldn't have been attending the Conference), we must accept the fact that our bread may not turn out exactly the same day after day. To get as close as possible to the crumb and crust we like, we need to learn how to compensate for the variability built in local wheat. The good news, as Scott Mangold cheerfully put it during his excellent workshop on test baking local whole wheat flours, is that, in the process, we will become better bakers. But growing to love the taste and texture of these local breads as much as those of the white baguette we may still hold as a gold standard will require keeping an open mind and educating both ourselves, our families and our friends (in the case of the home baker) and our customers (in case of the professional baker). As we slowly incorporate more local whole grains into our baking, the payoff will be huge however in terms of flavor, diversity, nutrition and the environment.
The way I suddenly understood it, our new role, as bakers, is to build upon our knowledge of traditional French bread-baking to help strengthen and sustain our communities here in America. What could possibly induce a deeper sense of finally belonging in this French woman who emigrated from her native Paris years and years ago and now bakes in the Pacific Northwest?
Of course I am lucky to live in a part of the country where (although much remains to be done), grains are already being grown, milled and made accessible to local bakers and brewers. If such is not the case where you live but you have access to a spot where you can grow what you like, you may want to read Growing Small Grains in Your Garden by Bob Van Veldhuizen. "A summation of many years of agronomic research into growing grains in Alaska scaled down to the typical home garden," it might give you some ideas on ways to get your family to kick off the white flour habit, even if you only have a balcony and your crop yields one tiny loaf... Should you decide to embark on that particular project, you may also want to read William Alexander's 52 Loaves, the lively account of a home grower/miller/baker's odyssey.
This year as last year, the Conference took place on the charmingly bucolic grounds of Western Washington State University Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center. Chaired by Stephen Jones, the Center's Director, it offered many different lectures, classes and workshops, not to mention evening tastings of local beers and ciders and, on the very last afternoon, a tour of the Hedlin Family Farm, BreadFarm Bakery and Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill. I didn't do the tour but I took as many classes and attended as many lectures as possible and I will report here on what I saw and heard. So please stay tuned!

Related Farine posts: 
Andrew Whitley: Bread Matters (keynote address)
Naomi Duguid: Bread Over Time (keynote address)
Kneading Conference West 2011
Scott Mangold: Test Baking with Local Wheats for Home and Bakery
Finnish Barley Bread (ohrarieska) (a Naomi Duguid recipe)

Other related posts:
By breadsong : Kneading Conference West - Day 1, Day 2 & Day 3
By Floyd Mann (The Fresh Loaf): Kneading Conference West - Part 1Part 2
By Naomi Duguid: Notes from the Skagit Valley
By Rhona McAdam: Kneading with a k
By Teresa Greenway: Kneading Conference West - Part 1 & Part 2

After I throw in a couple of flatbread and cracker recipes, not to mention the formula for the powerfully seductive barley-cheese-and-aged cheddar bread baked at the Conference by Andrew Ross from a British recipe adapted by Hannah Warren, my hope is that you too will want to answer Naomi Duguid's call to bakers: "Go back to your home or bakery and add at least two products than contain whole grains to your repertoire as well as at least one item made largely with a grain other than wheat"... It may not sound like much but if we all do it and buy our grain locally, seeds of change will germinate in our communities and grow to make a real difference. 

17 comments:

  1. Beautiful, wonderful, exquisite. Your photographs, hints of wonders to come and obvious joy in your hobby/passion inspire me MC. It was good to reunite this year and share our common interest with other enthusiasts. I will stay tuned...

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    1. Teresa, thank you! But really I don't think you need any inspiration...;-) It was wonderful sharing this time with you and other "bread heads". The energy and passion were palpable as if a Real Bread campaign was starting here in the States in all but name.

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  2. your pictures are just amazing. and your writing truly inspiring. it makes me feel, too, that sense of belonging that I also almost never feel. thank you for sharing and for spreading the word. I am on the verge of getting a small mill and then I will start hunting for local grains. so nice to be a follower, for once. xox

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    1. In the bread world, we both belong and that's the amazing truth! I can't wait to read about the mill and your experience with local grains. What do you mean, a follower? What I understood from Andrew Whitley is that we bakers are "companions" (from the Latin "cum panis" - with bread) and our circle gets wider and wider every day. Isn't that a heartwarming thought? Hugs!

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  3. I didn't expect you to do the write up so quickly, I enjoyed each and every word. Growing up in Brazil, moving to the US for the first time at age 26, I was used to freshly baked bread (although mainly white bread at that time) that would come out of bakeries in every corner of Sao Paulo hourly. People don't normally associate Sao Paulo with great bread, but that was (and still is) the case. I was HORRIFIED when the bread bought in plastic bags folded in half. Horrified. And puzzled. How on Earth did they manage to do that? It seemed impossible to me.

    I don't want to crowd your comment with long convoluted thoughts, so I stop here. You know for sure how much I appreciate your write up, as I am also a "daughter of two cultures", in a way almost three, as I had the privilege of living in Paris for a few years

    I look forward to your next post! and the next... and the next.... ;-)

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    1. So many of us inhabit more than one culture, don't we? I wonder if we all feel a little bit different throughout our lives, if only because we have access to at least two full sets of words to designate everything. Somebody asked me at the Conference whether I thought in French or in English and I truly didn't know what the answer was...
      I didn't know about the good bread in Sao Paulo. I met a young baker at SFBI a couple of years ago who was from SP. She had lived in Germany for a while and was planning to open a German-style bakery in your city. When you go back to visit your mom, I could try to locate her for you if you are interested...
      Thank you for your kind words about the post. It means a lot to me that you read Farine regularly.

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    2. I would be very interested to meet this baker! I will let you know when we plan our next trip, I am hoping for January, it's been a while...

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    3. Great! I'll start looking for her. Maybe you two could correspond...

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  4. So fascinating! It has been awhile since I've checked in here, and talking with some bread-bakers over the weekend inspired me to come visit. Really interesting write-up, and the sense of belonging and community is a concept that interests me very much. I've been meaning to try making bread again...the first time I tried, there was far too many WHOLE whole grains--spent grains from beer brewing; a fun activity in and of itself. I'd best try again with white bread, as a beginners exercise. ;-)
    A notre sante!

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    1. Hello Ali, nice to see you on Farine! If you'd like to try your hand at baking bread again, you may find some inspiration in this article by Andrew Whitley in the Guardian: it comes with a recipe in which you can adjust the proportion of whole grain to suit your taste. Leavened by a "sponge" (which is nothing more than a proportion of the total flour fermented for twelve to sixteen hours with water and yeast), it produces two loaves or a dozen rolls which you can make as soft as you like with the addition of some olive oil. Let me know if you try it and, more importantly, how you like it!
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/apr/16/recipes.foodanddrink

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  5. Hi MC :^)
    Thank you for your reflections on this wonderful Conference.
    So grateful for your company and that of so many others - it was a wonderful gathering, wasn't it?
    Your photos are stunning - I read Naomi Duguid's description of the locale as a 'Garden of Eden', which your pictures have captured, absolutely!
    :^) breadsong

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    1. Hello breadsong, indeed it was a wonderful gathering and the stunningly gorgeous weather certainly contributed to the Garden of Eden feeling that Naomi described. It was a big help with the pictures! ;-)
      And sharing the event with so many like-minded grain-obsessed people was such a treat. I love your day by day description of the Conference on your breadsong blog on the Fresh Loaf and linked to it in my post. I hope many readers go back and read it!

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    2. Thank you, MC - I am so glad you liked my posts and so kind of you to link to them.
      The people, the weather, the setting, the events - all combined to make this an incredible Conference!
      :^) breadsong

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  6. Tes reportages sont juste fabuleux ! J'adore lire sous tes mots la passion et le bonheur que tu y mets. Et que d'infos !! Merci +++ !

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    1. Merci, Flo! Ton comm supergentil me va droit au coeur... :)

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  7. Stunning!
      I love your writing, beautiful photos in a word, amazing! True little hard to Google, the translation is not perfect but still great! I really like the furnace, a real rarity!
    Greetings from Hungary: Terike

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