Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Grain Gathering 2015


Jumma soft white wheat berries from Pie Ranch Farm in Pescadero, California
I just got back from this year's Grain Gathering (GG), held as usual on the beautiful grounds on Washington State University Extension in Mount Vernon, Washington. I have been attending the GG since its inauguration in 2011 (back then it was called the Kneading Conference West and changed its name only last year). I enjoyed each and every one of them. This year was no exception. Except that it was maybe even better than the four previous ones. Which came as no surprise. Like good wine, GG gets better as it ages.
Of course some things don't change. The setting is as lovely as ever...
...the bread good for body and soul...
...all other food beautiful and tasty...
 
...and I could wax lyrical about the good-natured atmosphere, the sheer pleasure of spending two and a half days in the company of others sharing the same interests and passion, the thrill of hearing big-name bakers and other experts in the field talk about their work and share their know-how, the excitement of catching up with friends and acquaintances but I have covered that angle exhaustively over the years and it is decidedly not fun to write the same thing over and over again (not to mention reading it!). Although if you do want to refresh your memory, you'll find the links here.
So I'll go straight to sharing what I saw and heard. Of course, this year like the other years, I had to choose between many appealing classes, workshops, roundtables and talks held concurrently, which means that that my account can only be partial and my outlook limited. I sure wish I could have attended everything. Hopefully other bloggers will cover some of the ones I didn't get to. For a look at the full schedule, click here.
What struck me as different this year may not be so much the level of energy (it is always tremendous) but how far we have come. Four years ago we were dreaming of bringing back local grain but wondering how farmers could be enticed to grow it if, for lack of local milling infrastructures, bakers had no way to get the flour. Well, today more more bakers are buying small mills to mill the grain themselves. With the help of experienced millers/bakers such as Dave Miller in Oroville, California, they are learning to work with freshly milled flours and clearly excited at the realm of flavors now open to them. Nary a white baguette was to be seen at the GG this year: whole-grain ruled and Dave's class was mobbed.
Cliff Leir of Fol Épi inVictoria, British Columbia -who seemed like the odd man out four years ago when he showed up with armfuls of wholegrain loaves and the plans to his mill- could be seen under a tent helping Scott Mangold of Bread Farm in nearby Edison, Washington, build his own mill and I heard many other bakers enquire about small mills or comparing notes on the ones they had just acquired. Independent mills are starting up too: Nan Kohler's Grist & Toll in Pasadena is one beautiful example. If flour can be milled, farmers can grow grain. With the help of The Bread Lab at WSU Extension, they are learning to select varieties which are not only well adapted to their climate, soil, etc. but offer the flavor and nutritional value craft bakers (and their customers) are looking for not to mention the functional properties required to bake a good loaf.
Still in its infancy, the movement is clearly growing. To most home bakers though, availability remains an issue: living as I do on California's Central Coast, the only locally grown grain I can get without going online is to be found either very occasionally at my neighborhood farmers' market or (until they run out) at the farm stand up the coast, in both case at a price that would make it difficult to bake with it everyday. So yes, we still have a ways to go but at least we are moving in the right direction and nowhere is it more obvious than at the yearly GG.  If all goes well, I am hoping to post (in various degrees of detail) about the following:
  • Keynote addresses by Marie-Louise Risgaard and Lot Roca Enrich. Marie-Louise is a baker and teacher and co-owner of Skaertoft Mølle in southern Denmark. Lot is a miller who took over Harinera Roca from her grandfather 25 years ago. Her mill is located in Catalonia, Spain. A welcome look at some of the challenges of organic milling in Europe!
  • Dave Miller's class on 100% fresh-milled whole-grain bread: I was only able to attend the milling part but with the help of a generous friend who took lots of videos, I will be able to cover more. Dave kindly sent me his formulas which I will post as well.
  • Jeffrey Hamelman's flatbread class: five flatbreads, all baked in a wood-fired oven. Exciting international flavors. You'll enjoy reading all about it. My favorite was the socca (no formula but some tips and one or two pictures) and the anise-chocolate dessert bread (I got the formula for the dough but I think Jeff winged it for the topping, so you'll have to wing it too if you make it).
  • Andrew Ross's presentation "The Skinny on Gluten."  The goal was to straighten out the facts. It was so packed with technical info though that I am not sure I can do it justice. But if my notes make sense, I'll share them and you can take it from there. 
  • Conversation with bakers: a roundtable moderated by Leslie Mackie of Macrina Bakery in Seattle. Lively and thought-provoking!
  • Hand-making whole-grain pasta, a demo by Justin Dissmore, pasta chef at Café Lago in Seattle. He uses Edison wheat and from the tasting we got, I sure wish I could get it where I live.
  • And last but not least: Whole-grain artisan bread for the home-baker, a lively demo acted out (you'll see, there is no other word for it) by bakers Josey Baker (yes, that is his real name) of The Mill in San Francisco and Jonathan Bethony, resident baker at The Bread Lab, and by some accounts the baker with the best job in the world since he spends his time testing and baking with the stars. No formulas but plenty of tips!
So stay tuned (and please be patient as it might take some time).

2 comments:

  1. What a wonderful Grain Gathering, MC. The high cost of local and especially heritage grain is a critical issue in making it available to a sizeable group of consumers. The lower yields, the lack of equipment designed for small operations and taller varieties of wheat (people are restoring very old equipment still sitting around in barns), and the many ways in which farmers growing small amounts of wheat cannot take advantage of the economies of scale associated with commodity wheat all contribute to the high cost. Even with the higher price of these flours, it's not easy for growers and millers to make a profit. All this will change as the local/heritage grain economy matures, but it's a slow process.

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  2. I completely agree, Don. I too understand why the flour (or even just the grain as I buy the berries whenever I can) is so expensive. As individuals we cannot single-handedly guarantee that the farmer can make a living wage but if more and more of us bread bakers turn to local wheat when we can afford to, then we will be doing our bit to propel the movement forward. I for one am delighted to see the old farmer sell his son's flours at the farmers market. It only happens a couple of times a year. The first time I missed it but last week it was back on the table next to dark greens and gnarled black radishes and I splurged: I got a bag each of the soft wheat, the hard wheat and the durum. On to baking!

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