It's our mission at Seattle Farm School to teach homesteading skills so future generations of city dwellers like ourselves have the knowledge and experience to grow, bake, create and make wholesome foods and crafts by hand. A couple that have perplexed me the past few years is baking and brewing, and more critically, what in the world is going on with wheat. There are shelves everywhere lined with gluten-free and wheat free products and most people I talk to are "off wheat". There are serious autoimmune diseases like celiac that make people very sick, and then there are those of us on wheat free or protein & veggie only diets that don't want to gain weight by simply looking at a loaf of bread. When did wheat, a food and beverage staple since forever, become so dangerous? Is there any hope for nutritious grain based products, whether bread, pastry, or pasta? For flours of all varieties to be fresh and nutrient-packed? For beer and whiskey to be made from flavorful, local grains full of flavor? Or is that a magical unicorn in this day and age? It was my goal to find that out. And what I learned was amazing - we are living in the heart of a grain revolution and I'm so excited to share all that I've learned with you.
But first, a Will Ferrell scene picture that I love from his movie Stranger With Fiction, when he brings Maggie Gyllenhaal a bouquet of "flours".
For starters, I read the NY Times Bestselling book "Wheat Belly" by Dr. William Davis and learned that my wheat consuming habit would most definitely give me an unhealthy life and early death. It depressed me and I couldn't finish the book. I tried his strict no-wheat, (or grains) diet for a day and a half and gave up. This couldn't be the answer.
Then I read the book Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten by Stephen Yafa. This book helped answer so many questions. The basic foundation of wheat is unchanged over the centuries, including many heritage grains being brought back to life by organizations like The Bread Lab, right here in Western Washington. What has changed is the way it is grown, and how it is processed before making it to our store shelves. The part that's making us fat, sick and unhealthy isn't the grain, it's the fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals used to grow it and the nutritious bits being taken out during the processing. Wheat milling and baking is a major industry and the nation's largest manufacturers make the most money possible through using machinery designed to strip the grain of all the outer, nutrient rich parts, creating a refined flour that has so little nutritional value it needs to have vitamins put back in it.
Before 1880, all grain was grown and milled locally in stone mills where whole grains were crushed between two large stones into flour. There were 22,500 mills throughout the country, compared to 180 today. The end product of stone milled flour included the bran, germ and endosperm crushed up together, and is one of the most nutrition packed power-houses of food in the world, while white flour is one of the least. The drawbacks of stone milling are the texture and longevity of the flour. Sometimes the grain was not all ground consistently and could make bread clumpy, and as soon as the germ was broken open, the flour had a short shelf-life before it turned rancid.
The roller mill was invented in the late 19th century and is now widely used by large-scale commercial operations to produce flour. The roller mill separates the bran, germ and endosperm. The white refined flour we all know today is made entirely of endosperm, the least nutritious part of the grain. Whole wheat flour can be a combination of the three but not necessarily in the original portions as whole grains milled by a stone mill, some have as little as 10% germ and bran added back in.
What is happening with wheat today? There is a movement towards growing and processing localized grains all across America. As consumers are questioning where and how their products get to them, and learning about the ingredients used, there is a higher demand for more nutritious wheat-based products. As a country we are moving away from Wonder Bread, finally. Farmers are rediscovering the grains that grow best in their area, the varieties that need the least amount of "help" to produce high quality grains, meaning less (or none) chemicals in the growing process. In Bellingham a grain breeder has developed a hard white spring wheat called Edison Wheat that could prove to be a perfect backyard grain for our northwestern marine climate. It is now being grown over 100 acres in Oregon at Camas Country Mills, a grain grower and gristmill operator in the Willamette Valley. Small locally owned mills are growing in number, such as the Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Bellingham, and a new one that will be built in Skagit County and will process grains with a dual-purpose stone mill and roller mill, creating the finest whole-grain products. This marks a major shift for local farmers who are growing grains for feed to include more grains grown for human consumption. Local entrepreneurs and established farmers are working together to build this mill in our region to be able to bring great products to our community.
The Bread Lab, in Mount Vernon, WA is a cutting edge innovator in the grain world. Started by Stephen Jones in affiliation with Washington State University, The Bread Lab is an integral part of the WSU Plant Breeding Program, which studies the diversity of locally grown grains to determine those that perform well for farmers, and that are most suitable for craft baking, malting, brewing, distilling, and other culinary creations. Professional bakers and chefs analyze and test their whole grain products under the technical guidance of Bread Lab Director and wheat breeder Dr. Stephen Jones and Bread Lab resident baker Jonathan Bethony.
This past summer, The Bread Lab started the transition from its original 600-square-foot room at the Research Center to a 12,000 square foot building at the Port of Skagit. In addition to the expanded Bread Lab, the new quarters will house a rheological lab for testing dough qualities such as protein content, extensibility and elasticity, and mixing tolerance, a King Arthur Flour state-of-the-art baking classroom, a milling lab, a professional kitchen under the guidance of James Beard Best Chef: Northwest Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, and a brewing and distilling micro-lab overseen by Emerson Lamb, founder, and Matt Hofmann, master distiller, of Westland Distillery, right in our backyard in SODO, and Will Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen. Several professional chefs have teamed up with The Bread Lab, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York did to develop a wheat grain (Barber Wheat) for his restaurants that tastes of apricot and has that warm & sunny wet hay aroma, and now they are growing it at Stone Barns farm too. If you haven't seen the Netflix documentary Chef's Table, featuring Dan and Blue Hill (Season 1) you've got some tv watching to do!
The Bread Lab is revolutionizing everything we know about wheat. From seed to shelf they are creating, educating and innovating the entire process, combining Old World knowledge and New World technology to make the best flours ever. The Bread Lab has grown over 40,000 varieties of wheat at their research facility in Skagit County, all to preserve and promote what is best for not only the end product but for the farmers in terms of productivity and salable output.
They are also the hub of the annual Grain Gathering, a collection of 250 serious professional and home chefs, bakers, brewers, distillers, farmers and enthusiasts who are passionate about rebuilding the local and regional grain networks. They come together every summer to bake, grill and taste the best products under the sun.
One of these enthusiasts is right in our backyard, Gerrit Kischner. He's a busy guy, the principal of one of Seattle's largest elementary schools (over 600 students), and he bakes for his family every Sunday for the week ahead. His favorite rye bread takes 3 hours in the oven! The Monday before Thanksgiving he brought in his fresh baked rye bread and currant rolls for his staff. I was fortunate enough to be handed a paper sack full of still-warm rolls and bread that morning and learn about his passion for milling and baking. He told stories of fresh bread baking in his childhood home, then learned to love great bread while working at La Boulangerie in Wallingford during high school, and baking out of necessity after college. He traveled with bags of whole wheat flour shipped to him while living and teaching in the Philippines and New Zealand. When he and his family settled down back in Seattle, he found his dream grinder, a Wolfgang Mock mill being sold on Craigslist for $150. It was "a life changer" after burning out three grinding attachments for his KitchenAid. He now grinds everything from chickpea flour to corn meal, including all the wheat, rye, oat groats and quinoa his family needs, and stores them in gallon-sized glass jars to keep fresh.
Kischner's suggestions for new bakers? Start with the No Knead Loaf from NY Times, and pick up a copy of the book Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands which covers everything you need to know about baking fresh bread, including sourdough starters. Bread made using long sourdough fermentation has been proven effective in breaking down and neutralizing gluten molecules, and people with gluten sensitivities (excluding celiacs) have reported no negative effects from eating whole wheat sourdough bread made this way.*
Sourdough brings me back to the main take-away from the Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten book. A whole-wheat sourdough recipe that will knock your socks off, help you lose weight and add valuable nutrition (and flavor!) into your diet. That unicorn magic is real folks! Get the book, skip the science and stories and head straight for Appendix A for the recipe and instructions. Until your neighborhood mill is open for business, buy flour like King Arthur's in the regular grocery store, or grind your own from grains available on Azure Standard, regional GMO-free grains like these on Amazon, or directly from mills in your area. Check out the list of resources and recipes on The Bread Labs' site for starters.
Let's continue the push for farmland protection, localized grains and mills so one day, in the not-too-distant-future, we'll be referring to grains by their terroir and locality, just like we do for wine and craft beer today, all while drinking a locally grown malted brew of course!
*Grain of Truth. pg 18.
**Thank you to Adam Foy of Acme Valley Foods in Bellingham; Kevin Morse, Skagit Valley farmer and farmland steward; and Gerrit Kischner, Seattle Schools Principal for your contributions to this article. I appreciate all you are doing for your communities - keep pushing on!