Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Meet the Miller: Nan Kohler

Photo kindly contributed by Nan Kohler

Related post: Sonora White Whole Wheat Jelly Roll

What does a sprawling modern American city like Los Angeles have in common with the tiny age-old Southwestern France village my paternal ancestors hail from? I bet you'll never guess. Are you ready to give votre langue au chat (literally "your tongue to the cat," in other words give up guessing)? Yes? All right, then I'll let you in on the secret: both feature a mill!
I grew up hearing stories about the moulin du village (the village mill) and how my great-grandmother loved to walk over there to forage for watercress in the nearby brook and tailler une bavette (have a long chat) with the miller and his wife (who belonged to another branch of our family)* and maybe some friends and neighbors before hiking home along the dusty road, a bag of flour on her shoulder, ready for the forthcoming baking day. As a descendent of this strong and congenial woman and as a baker who mills most of her whole-grain flours herself, I was emotionally ready for some serious pangs when we finally visited the old place (with my parents no less) at the end of a parched summer ten years ago.
I am sorry to report that I felt no pangs (at least none that were bread-related.) The mill was still standing. A valiant effort had been made to salvage parts of it after decades of  neglect and disrepair but it had become a résidence secondaire (a weekend home) and the millstones had morphed into fenceposts. Also, the road between the mill and the village had been paved. Not that anyone would have hiked it carrying a bag of flour...
In Los Angeles by contrast, the mill is brand-new...
... you can park at the door (no schlepping necessary)...
...and the miller is alive and well, eager not only to grind the best local grain she can get her hands on (preferably from old varieties) but also to place the mill at the center of community life once again. Nan Kohler's urban flour mill, Grist & Toll, has only been in operation for a few weeks but it has already attracted a lot of attention, not to mention customers: right now she can only open for retail three days a week (on Closed days, she mills her flours) but as soon as she finds help, business hours will be extended.
Nan drew inspiration for the name of her mill from her research into ancient rural practices: "Grist and toll are two very old milling terms that sort of sum up how wheat traveled through potentially many hands before it showed up as a loaf of bread or baked good on a family table. Since the beginnings of civilization, wheat has been grown and milled to produce life-sustaining bread. Flour mills were natural epicenters in growing communities, to which local and distant farmers would travel with their “grist” or grain harvest. Once the grist had been milled, the miller would take his “toll”, an agreed upon percentage of the flour, in lieu of wages. Depending on where and in what time period you lived, many tolls could potentially have been taken along the way - the local baker at the community oven was allowed to keep a portion of each loaf before baking in order to create a loaf for his family, and in France there were separate bolting facilities, or sifting houses, who would receive the single pass flour from a mill and sift it to create the more refined pastry flours; they were allowed a toll as well."
On opening day, in November 2013, Grist & Toll drew a lively crowd of bakers, interested not only in showing off their breads but in trying out the mobile wood-fired oven Michael O'Malley, an artist, professor and fellow serious home baker, had built for himself and brought to the parking lot for the occasion. A variety of breads were baked and devoured and from what I heard, the mobile oven will soon be back by popular demand, possibly on a regular basis**. Recalling my Dad's memories of the village oven and of the six-pound miches his grandmother used to bake in it every other week, now I am feeling the pangs, moved to the quick by the notion that a way of life he had thought forever gone might be making a comeback a world away and a century later...

Nan Kohler's Triple IV whole grain flour

Nan Kohler's Sonora whole grain pastry flour
A miller's flour is only as good as his or her grain and, be it wheat, rye or spelt, Nan Kohler is very particular about her grain. In fact her love of grain dates back to the days when she was still a pastry chef and owned a baking business: her style wasn’t the "overly sweet sugar bombs," as she puts it; she needed diversity, wanted to taste the chocolate, the vanilla, the butter. Always on the lookout for new ingredients, she started to incorporate alternate grains (whole wheat pastry flour, spelt, oats. etc.) in her pastries, combining them with sweet butter to discover new flavors and she soon fell under the spell.
On a trip to Paris, by the sheerest of coincidences, she became acquainted with another LA resident and grain aficionada, TV screenwriter and producer Marti Noxon who is today her business partner. A talented cook and baker, Marti is a methodical woman who likes to broaden and deepen her knowledge of food by devoting each year to a different topic. The year Nan met her was the Year of Bread.
Talk about karma! Nan had just watched an old recording of Gourmet's Adventures with Ruth, more specifically the episode where Ruth Reichl goes to Bath and makes bread with Richard Bertinet. She had found herself mesmerized by the part where Bertinet takes Ruth to Shipton Mill to meet owner John Lister, a former anthropologist who came to milling because he wanted "a life where he was doing something real." She listened as Lister explained that every baking process needed a different type of flour and heard Bertinet say: "A good baker will make good bread with a good miller."That's all she remembers because after that the only thing she could think of was: "Why don’t we have that in LA? Is it even possible? Do we even grow wheat?"
Marti and Nan had a girls' night out to discuss what interested them in baking. It soon became obvious that they were both passionate enough about it that delving deeper into the matter was warranted. Nan started researching: she met with Janice Cooper, Executive Director of the California Wheat Commission, attended the 2012 Kneading Conference West (now The Grain Gathering) where she met Mark Stambler, founding member of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, and Dr. Stephen Jones, Director, Washington State University Research and Extension at Mt Vernon, and one of the nation's foremost grain specialists. Dr. Jones helped her connect with local farmers who wanted to bring back landraces and Mark Stambler directed her to passionate bakers eager to make bread with local flours.
Through Janice Cooper, she became acquainted with Tom Shepherd of Shepherd Farms who farms in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara: she now buys all the wheat he grows, this year Triple IV, Red Fife and a bit of Glenn. Tom dry-farms his grain, which means that the yield is lower but the quality top-notch. In a state where land is very expensive and the cost of water outrageous, the biggest challenge is to put together a sustainable grain-growing structure. He and other like-minded farmers are therefore hugely interested in California landraces which are adapted to the drought. Nan is a firm believer in landraces: "California is operating at a wheat-loss. We grow wheat but we export so much that we cannot feed ourselves and we are losing control of our seeds. We aren’t thinking long-term. We need to try and stop this trend."
Further north, other California farmers are working towards the same goal within the framework of the Mendocino grain project. Closer to home, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers (LABB) have been trying to grow wheat and spelt in Agura Hills, northeast of the city. Their efforts failed last year (I followed their farming adventures on their blog, at first with great excitement then with a feeling of doom: Hoping to share the wheat, Reporting sheepishly, 3rd week of April,  Slim Pickens and Harvest is done). LABB lost a battle but it didn't lose the war. As Nan puts it, "Where we plant needs to be tended to. Someone needs to be farming there. The plot we chose last year was in the middle of a residential area, which made it appealing to wildlife (deer, squirrels, birds) and there was no farmer to watch it. Also, too many seeds were planted too shallowly." We live and learn. Even though LABB hasn't embarked upon a new experimental wheat planting project this year, it continues to be supportive of and actively involved in attempts to jump-start a local and sustainable grain hub in Southern California. Meanwhile it is calling for bakers to grow grain at their front door (presumably so that they can keep an eye on the crop).
Grist & Toll currently carries two wheat flours, Triple IV and Sonora. Hard red winter Triple IV contains 12.5% protein. Originally grown as animal feed, it was found to have excellent bread-baking properties and is now grown for artisan baking. Soft Sonora white wheat is lower in protein (11.5%): it can be used both for pastry and, with careful handling, for bread. "Interestingly," says Nan, "at one point in California's history, Sonora was about 80% of all the wheat planted up and down the state. Today only a handful of growers are trying to revive it, mostly in Northern California. I am able to purchase and mill Sonora because of a connection my friends at Hayden Flour Mills made for me, so it is coming from Arizona. However, there are two farmers who have just planted this year closer to our area - in Santa Barbara County and Kern County, so I hope to have a California source later this year.  As an aside: purchasing some grain from Arizona helps our whole movement. Arizona, like Northern California, is ahead of us in successfully growing some of the landrace wheat varieties. By purchasing some of their grain and helping their farmers pull through and sell what they have grown, I hope I am adding to their demand and encouraging those farmers to plant again and perhaps even increase their plantings." Think locally and act regionally! I like Nan's thinking...
Once her grain sourced, Nan had to find a mill. Easier said than done. She travelled to Maine to meet with the organizers of the original Kneading Conference and to Arizona to consult with Jeff and Emma Zimmerman of Hayden Flours Mills.  She conferred on the phone with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills from she received advice and encouragement. It soon became clear to her that artisanal milling equipment was no longer manufactured in the United States, largely because our society had allowed the craft of milling to die off. Only one American company, Meadows Mills, was still making a smaller mill, but their only possible option had vertically placed milling stones and Nan was on the hunt for horizontal ones: milling can generate a lot of heat and because heat is detrimental to the living organisms and nutrients present in the grain, she wanted the added control that horizontal stones would give her in slowing the process down.
There were more choices in Europe where several bakers still mill their own flours and after careful research, Nan finally settled on a 2,500 lb Osttiroler Getreidemühlen, made by an Austrian company which had remained in the hands of the same family for more than 75 years. She loved the wood which helped prevent the flour from overheating, the horizontally placed stones and the gleaming good looks and, as an added bonus, once the mill delivered and set up, her husband, Chris Kohler, found a way to attach a motor to a variable frequency drive, so that she could slow things down even more.

Photo kindly contributed by Nan Kohler
Nan has a sifter and plans to make hi-extraction flour. She also plans to install ovens in the kitchen for testing and recipe-development. "It is essential for me to understand the flours I sell, to be knowledgeable about their characteristics, to know for instance that Triple IV requires 90% hydration; that Sonora is even thirstier, that it is good for pastry because low in protein but that you can make very good bread with it, etc. Before I opened Grist & Toll, I milled my grain at home. My first mill was a Jansen. As soon as I started milling, even generic wheat, it became obvious how much more interesting the flavor was."
The biggest challenge in becoming an urban miller in Los Angeles was undeniably dealing with the city. "There is an unbelievable lack of enthusiasm at city level, especially in the Health Department, for encouraging businesses that are different. Which meant I had to go to lots of meetings, bring tons of pictures, talk the process through and through. It took forever." That in spite of the fact that at city management level, they loved the idea: they knew it meant lots of interaction with other businesses and with schools. Indeed several schools are already planning to grow wheat so that it can be milled and baked. "Those are important and sustainable things to preserve."
They are indeed and Grist & Toll appears set to play a big role in promoting local grain and keeping village life alive and well in the greater Los Angeles area. Kudos to the miller!

Photo kindly contributed by Nan Kohler

*As I said we were with my parents on that particular visit to my father's childhood lieux de mémoire (literally, places of remembrance). He explained that this other branch of our family had held the exclusive right to all the mills in the valley for generations (they didn't own them, just operated them), a fact that he was immensely proud of. He also said that in ancient times, the village mill hadn't belonged to the miller or even to the village but to the seigneur (the lord) who owned the local castle and paid the miller a salary. This state of affairs may have changed at the end of the eighteenth-century after the French Revolution. I wish I had thought of asking... What I do know is that from the fourteenth century on, millers weren't allowed to be bakers as well, probably because it would given them too much economic heft.
** Michael O'Malley is bringing his mobile wood-fired oven back to Grist & Toll on February 9. For more info, read here


  1. I loved this piece! I particularly love the photos of the flour in the scoops, so tactile. It must be very exciting to be involved in such a project. I go to a little mill called Stanway which last time I went there, he had lost a tooth on a wheel, and was brooding darkly about different woods and what to do and who to call. They grind and sift their own flour using the water from the mill pond. It is a tiny mill in comparison to Shipton Mill, but I am very fond of them. (Secretly would love to be a miller!)

    1. Well, Joanna, the miller sounds kind of tired of his milling life... Maybe there'll be an opening at Stanway you could take advantage of? And, dare I say it, when I first read your comment, I thought the miller had lost an actual tooth! I didn't know that mill wheels had teeth... Interesting!

  2. Hi MC,

    Urban millers - who would have 'thunk' it possible…..

    Another wonderful look into what is happening in the world of bread that I would have no way of knowing about if it weren't for you taking the time to do all of your research and traveling and reporting back here! I love what these women are doing and I can only imagine that, given time, others will follow suit.

    Love the mill. What a work of art and how ingenious. If something breaks, only one piece has to be replaced rather than a whole new machine being purchased as so many things are disposable in today's marketplace.

    I am assuming the horizontal 'object' in the background is their machine that does the sifting? I ask because it looks just like a rabbit hutch :) Having raised 3 kids in the suburbs hutches are quite common and I am wondering if that is where they got their idea for the design.
    I sooo love seeing the work of creative minds.
    Thanks so much for all of your time and effort but especially thanks for sharing here for us to read!



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