It is hard to say what I enjoy most at the yearly Kneading Conferences West: the bucolic setting (the orchards, gardens and fields surrounding Washington State University Research and Extension Center at Mt. Vernon, Washington), the learning opportunities (the instructors are invariably top-level), the discovery of “new” flavors through the local revival of age-old varieties of grain, or the networking (bakers flocked in this year from ten different states, including Alaska and Pennsylvania, many came from Canada and an adventurous soul even made it all the way from South Africa). All I know is that each time I go home re-energized and eager for more.
The only downside to such inspiring events is that they are also exercises in frustration! Take a look at the schedule for this year and tell me you wouldn’t have be tempted by pretty much each and every one of these lectures, classes, workshops, and visits. I know I was. Never more than at a Kneading Conference do I regret that human beings haven’t been graced with the gift of ubiquity. Oh, well…
In 2011 and even more so in 2012, I followed the grain, trying to get a better idea of the ways bakers could help revive and sustain farms in their communities by sourcing ingredients close to home and learning to work with heritage crops, “liberating” the aromas of their terroir in the process. This year, I went for the bread.
I picked the two-day class on creating signature breads, taught by Martin Philip, a baker and the bakery operations manager at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont (more on the class in an upcoming post).
I also picked the hamburger workshop taught by Mel Darbyshire, head baker for Grand Central Bakery in Seattle. The focus was on developing buns that would be both handsome and wholesome, and Mel nailed it for sure. I never knew such plump and tasty beauties could actually be good for you! I’ll post pictures and the formula as soon as I can.
Finally, on the last day, I sat in for a fantastic lesson on the science of bread, taught by Lee Glass, a passionate home baker and a physician with a keen interest in the chemistry that underlies baking. While I took copious notes, I would be hard put to convey what I heard in a comprehensive and scientifically meaningful manner. So I won’t attempt it. Instead and with Lee’s help (which he kindly agreed to provide), I will try to put together a few posts on what goes on behind the scene at various stages of baking. If all goes well, it will be a project for the long winter months.
The Conference wasn’t entirely focused on technique and science though. Other participants chose different classes. For a broader perspective (and way more pictures since operating the camera with a cast turned out to be a bit of a challenge), you may want to check out the links provided at the bottom of this post.
Darra Goldstein kickstarted the Conference with a welcome reminder of bread culture through the ages. I already knew Goldstein, who teaches Russian at Williams College and is a founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, as the author of A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, a marvelously nostalgic book which followed me cross-country when we moved west. But I didn’t know she was also a bread aficionada (she even owns and operates an Alan Scott wood-fired oven).
There was fervor in her voice as she evoked the traditional Russian stove: made of brick and covered with stucco, it can fire to a very high temperature and since it releases heat very slowly, it can be used reliably for a variety of dishes as it cools. First comes the rye bread, dark and fragrant, then soups and porridges, and finally when the heat is almost a memory, the fermented dairy products.
Slow and beautiful, the stove was always seen as a life-giving force and controlling it was an art. But it would be a mistake to romanticize bread: much of Europe was always on the verge of famine. Putting a loaf on the table required a lot of manpower and was back-breaking work, often done in the dark bakeshops where the only light came from the oven, as attested in the work of numerous painters, notably Millet in France.
Recalling how difficult it had been for her to adjust to life in the Soviet Union as a graduate student, Goldstein said the only thing that kept her from flying back home was Russian hospitality or “Хлеб-соль” (literally “bread-salt”). Deeply ingrained in the Slavic psyche, it designates the welcome traditionally offered to newcomers, important guests or newly weds: a loaf of bread and some salt.
Today, bread is still a staple in many countries. It may play a less central role in the diet of other nations, including France, but often remains an essential part of their cultural identity as attested by French designer Jean-Paul Gautier’s 2005 fashion collection Paris-Couture (the video is in French but the fun is in the watching). Although nobody wore bread to KCW (alas!), bread love was everywhere…
…in the heady fragrance of wheat…
Still, Richard Miscovich who teaches artisan baking at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and champions wood-fired ovens, encouraged bakers to go beyond bread and use the full range of temperatures such ovens offer as they gradually release heat. I didn’t attend the class but I heard people raving about it afterwards and from what they were saying, no oven will be allowed to cool empty from now on if it can be helped…
When all is said and told, holding an event such as the Kneading Conference is a lot like sowing: you get to scatter seeds all around, some drop into awaiting furrows, some blow with the wind, others still travel with birds to faraway places. But wherever they finally fall, all of them carry the promise of growth. I am deeply grateful to KCW’s sponsors as well as to the organizers, instructors, volunteers and WSU staff members who unreservedly shared their knowledge and skills. You guys rock! Thank you.