This year’s was the seventh Grain Gathering (GG) (well, technically the fourth as it was called the Kneading Conference West for the first three years). Every year, in the weeks preceding the event I find myself dragging my feet and wondering why on earth I decided to make the trip and whether or not this GG would the last one for me. And, every year, once I am there I get swept up in the excitement and energy and I just love it.
As Steve Jones, Director of the Bread Lab, put it in his introductory address, the GG is meant to be just that, a gathering, not a conference. People go in and out, observe, taste, listen, talk, teach.
They follow their passion and their tastebuds (often awakening new ones in the process) and they network pretty much non-stop. Which is the point, right? Because where else can you talk bread and baking and local grain infrastructure for hours on end without people around you surreptitiously (or not) rolling their eyes and dropping like flies? At the GG we are all grain heads. It’s a given.
We came nearly 300 strong this year, from 23 states and 7 countries. Imagine the wealth of points of view and experiences. One minute you are seating next to a scientist (many university people were in attendance this year from the U. of Kentucky to Yale, Oregon State, U. of Colorado, etc.) the next to a chef or a miller, a baker, a farmer, a brewer, a maltster, a distiller, a home baker, you just never know whom you are going to get to talk to.
One participant I met on the very first day is chef, author and instructor Robin Asbell. She just posted on her blog an excellent article about the Grain Gathering (complete with lovely barley recipes.)
Another is Joe Ray, an author on Wired magazine, (well, I didn’t actually meet him but we sat in the same recipe-writing workshop). He has this to say in his own write-up : “Like me, legions of people are averse to whole-grain anything. Experts attending the Grain Gathering and their acolytes share that opinion, but they strive to make such foods so delicious that you might need to reconsider. ”
Case in point: Jeff Yankellow‘s whole-wheat croissant.
Joe again: “As someone who’s lived in France for 10 years and written about food for 15—and is cognizant of the bile likely to appear in the comment section at the bottom of this page—I will say this anyway: This pastry stood shoulder-to-shoulder with top-flight Parisian croissants.”
I don’t know about the shoulder part but as a born and bred Parisian and a life-long croissant lover, I can say this: Jeff’s whole-wheat croissants are flaky and stupendously flavorful. I have never had a better one in Paris or elsewhere. I have had different ones for sure, including once at Pistacia Vera Bakery in Columbus, Ohio, a rye croissant (not whole-grain though) that still brings tears of wonder to my eyes. But none better. Long live diversity!
If you’d like to know more about Jeff’s formulas and method, check out the post I did last year on his Sweet Dough and Lamination with Whole Grains class.
I wish I could have tasted all of Jeff’s whole-grain pastries but while I have two eyes to take it all in, I have only one mouth and one stomach. Sad! Equally limiting is the fact that I can only be in one spot at a time. Take a look at this year’s schedule and tell me if you don’t wish (as I often do) that you had been born with the gift of ubiquity. Since I wasn’t, alas, I must refer you to instagram for many more glimpses of this year’s GG that I could possibly provide.
As Steve Jones remarked not only once but twice: “There is room for beauty in what we do.” That is true in more ways than one of course. In previous years, the Grain Gatherings was held on the campus of the Washington State University extension in Mt Vernon, Washington. The setting could hardly have been more lovely and I will always think back on the GG’s of yore with a degree of nostalgia.
But the GG has moved to the Port of Skagit‘s food campus in Burlington, Washington, next to Skagit Airport and what it lost in bucolic charm (although it has remained fairly rustic)…
…it more than made up for in convenience. And there is beauty in that too. Plus who doesn’t think grain is beautiful?
The thing is, the Bread Lab has moved and the GG followed. In fact the new Bread Lab held its grand opening just the day before the start of this year’s Gathering.
Housed in a 12,000-square-foot building that it shares with King Arthur Flour’s new baking education center: with a larger bread laboratory, a milling room, a state-of-the-art professional kitchen, a conference room, meeting areas, etc., it is now much better equipped to fulfill its mission, including hosting the grain gatherers who descend upon it every summer.
Some of the GG’s workshops and roundtables still took place outside under tents but most of the activities were held indoors, if not inside the Bread Lab/King Arthur Flour building itself then on the premises of Skagit Valley Malting or Skagit Valley College Brewing Academy. Shuttle vans were at the ready to ferry participants from one place to the next but everything was within easy walking distance.
For another take on the Bread Lab, you may want to visit Gates Notes, Bill Gates’ blog. Bill Gates didn’t attend the GG (he visited the Bread Lab about three weeks prior,) but he was clearly impressed by what he saw.
Nathan Myhrvold, whose many achievements include the famous Modernist Cuisine cookbook, did come to share insights about his new book, Modernist Bread. If the few slides and nuggets of info he provided are any indication, the work promises to be quite fascinating. More on this in another post!
At one of the roundtables I attended, someone asked the question: “Who benefits from work done at the Bread Lab?” The consensual answer was: farmers of course, chefs and bakers and their customers, people attuned to the food movement as well as other people with limited time and resources and no other way to access grain information.
Heading back home as I flew over Puget Sound (in awe at the beauty below me), I thought of all us gatherers now dispersing again to 7 countries and 23 states, each carrying new seeds of knowledge to nurture and grow. As a bread blogger, my modest contribution can only be to share what I hear and see but I know others will be up to bigger things and I am already looking forward to what they will be coming up with in the next year.
Meanwhile here is what I hope to report on when/if I can get to it:
- Recipe writing (with Martha Holmberg)
- Mentoring bakers (with Jeffrey Hamelman)
- How grain built made the ancient State (by Dr. James Scott)
- Making hand pies (with Mel Darbyshire)
- Modernist Bread (with Nathan Myhrvold)
- Three techniques for fresh milled flour (with Jeffrey Hamelman, Jeff Yankellow and Martin Philip)
- The nutrition of grain (with David Killilea)
- Cookbook writing (with Martin Philip and Martha Holmberg)