You're here, so you're probably a foodie (whether you like it or not). You've read everything there is to know about local sourcing and seasonal menus and the advantages of grass-fed beef. You've endured the rolling eyes of friends who can't believe the prices you're willing to pay for bacon, pickled vegetables, egg nog. You're not alone.
But even you may find yourself wondering if things have perhaps gone a bit too far if we're now talking about artisanal flour. It's made from wheat, after all, that most basic, boring, foundational of foods. That's a fair point. But you might also consider the fact that grain was there at the beginning — not just of agriculture, but of civilization itself.
Josey Baker is a bread-maker of a decidedly San Francisco variety: good-looking and affable, always wearing a T-shirt and a beard, prone to spurts of idealism and dropping a few f-bombs in conversation. In a former life, he was a science teacher, but he left at age 27 on a quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread. Three-and-a-half years later, he's now part-owner of The Mill on Divisadero, a hip, white-subway-tile-bedecked partnership with Four Barrel Coffee where he sells $4 toast and $6 loaves of dark mountain rye and whole-grain wheat. Five months ago he installed a stone mill in a small room off the kitchen, and as of a few weeks ago, started selling 4-pound bags of his own freshly ground wheat and rye flours for $10 apiece, five times the cost of Safeway's refined white stuff.
The Mill is so off-the-charts twee that it sounds like something out of Portlandia, and its $4 toasts have become think-piece shorthand for a certain brand of Bay Area preciousness. But Baker's genuinely excited about his milling experiments. To him — and to a growing number of Bay Area bakers, brewers, chefs, and pasta-makers — using locally grown or freshly milled grains is as natural and necessary as sourcing local produce or grinding fresh pepper.
California's fledgling grain economy has a few big hurdles to clear before local flour catches on. There's not much knowledge about how to grow heirloom wheat and other grains well, and hardly any infrastructure to support small farmers attempting it. Not only does wheat take up a lot of farmland that could be used for more valuable crops, but once it's grown, you also need equipment and resources to thresh it, clean it, store it, and mill it before it becomes flour — significantly more work than a flat of strawberries requires. All this overhead translates to higher costs for consumers. While many of us have become resigned to paying $6 a pound for the perfect tomato, paying $2.50 a pound for artisanal flour still seems absurd.
Despite the obstacles, the farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, scientists, academics, and policy-makers involved in the project see a few major reasons to press on. Fresh local food tastes better, and rediscovered heirloom and specialty grains, as well as freshly milled flour, are giving whole-grain breads and pastas a range of flavors they haven't had in a century. They're also probably better for your health. There isn't much research yet, but many in the field believe that whole, organically grown, stone-milled grains are better for the body than processed, hybridized, conventionally grown ones. But either way, gluten's exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye. For farmers, wheat is a good rotation crop, one that doesn't require much water and has a whole romance and history to it.
Most of all, creating a local grain economy is about shedding light on a part of the food ecosystem that's been dark for a long time. I'm concerned with the sources of my food as much as any discerning eater, but until a month ago I'd never thought to wonder where my flour came from. Flour has been a cheap commodity ingredient, always there, always the same, for my lifetime, and for the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents. I'd never tasted flour fresh out of a mill, or even really knew what a mill did. I didn't understand the fundamentals of growing and harvesting wheat, and it had never occurred to me that there might be as many varieties of wheat as there are of apples or potatoes.
But then, it turned out that very few people I talked to did either, and those who did know about wheat and milling had to learn from scratch. Somewhere down the line, we lost that institutional knowledge — which is crazy not only because California used to lead the nation in wheat production, but also because bread is one of the oldest and most essential foods on earth.
Earlier this year, food guru Michael Pollan went on The Colbert Report to promote his new book, Cooked, which is all about the forces we use to transform our ingredients into meals. His basic thesis is that who cooks your food is more important than the nutritional content of the ingredients, and that food cooked by a person, rather than a corporation, is just naturally going to be better for you. He told Stephen Colbert that he could even eat a vilified food like pasta if he cooked it himself, though maybe he should make it whole wheat instead of white. "Whole-wheat pasta sucks," Colbert replied, stone-faced. The crowd went wild.
He's right: Most whole-wheat pasta does suck. I dutifully cook it because it's supposed to be good for me, but it's terrible — the texture's all wrong, chewy rather than al dente, and the assertively nutty, almost bitter flavor gets in the way of the sauce. Then I had Bob Klein's whole-wheat pasta and realized that it can be wonderful. As proprietor of the fledgling grain company Community Grains and Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, Klein is making locally grown pasta and flour that tastes radically different from the stuff you get off the grocery store shelves.
An imposing, friendly man in his 60s with a bushy gray beard and glasses, Klein speaks about his dedication to reviving California's local grain economy with quiet, intense passion. He compares what's happening with grains now to what he saw happening with tomatoes a few decades ago, before the rise of heirlooms, when tomatoes were just the dull, watery things available regardless of season and location. "If you go to someone 25 years ago and say, I'll sell you a tomato for $6 a pound, forget about it," he says. "Now people understand that that's a real tomato because they understand the value, and chefs know what they are and understand what to do with them." The heirloom tomato movement started with interested farmers and chefs and spread outward to CSAs and farmers markets. Now they're sold at Walmart. Klein thinks that locally sourced wheat could eventually get there too.