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 1 & Part 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.