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There Will Be Bread: The Newest Development in Food Culture Is Also the Oldest 

Wednesday, Nov 27 2013
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Few people are taking this knowledge quest more seriously than Tartine's Chad Robertson — another youngish, bearded, handsome San Francisco baker, rightfully considered one of the best in the country. Tartine is famous for its white country loaf with thick, crackling crust and silky, supple crumb, and Robertson and his team are building on that DNA to play the edges of what its bread can be.

In his new cookbook, Tartine Book No. 3, which hits shelves Dec. 17, Robertson offers recipes for alien-sounding things like sprouted buckwheat-einkorn loaves, wheat-spelt crispbreads, and chamomile-Kamut shortbread. Some were served at the book's release party, cooked by Chez Panisse alum Samin Nosrat. The kefir-Kamut crust on a galette was so sweet and flaky and buttery that it was hard to believe it was made with an "ancient grain" formerly associated with hippie moms.

Robertson became interested in these heirloom grains during a trip to Denmark, where he sampled bread made with heirloom Danish wheat connected to restaurant/think tank Noma. Now he's working on sourcing them, in some cases partnering with local farmers to grow some of these obscure grains in small batches.

He believes that these grains are probably easier for the body to digest, but he's also interested in the broadened flavor possibilities they represent. Some of the grains he's looking to bring over from Scandinavia aren't necessarily the ancient ones, but have been saved over the past century because people love the way they taste. "Heirloom, I guess, means singled out," he says. "We love this because it's sweet and buttery and we're going to keep growing this and try and make sure this kind of stays like this."

In order to keep experimenting, Robertson's finally ready to open his own mill in San Francisco. Right now his flour supplier is milling these weird grains for him as a favor, and Robertson doesn't want to lean on his friend forever. Though he says he will never mill all of Tartine's flour himself — his long-time source, Central Milling, supplies more than 100 bakeries in the Bay Area and is widely considered the best and most responsibly sourced commercial flour on the market — he does want the freedom to keep messing around with the smaller specialty grains.

Setting up a mill is a major step, though, and one that Robertson's undertaking with Ahab-like intensity. He's not convinced that a stone mill is the best technology out there, and is traveling the world to learn all he can about milling techniques. There is indeed more than one way to grind a grain, it turns out: Robertson has visited Japanese udon-flour mills and Swedish vortex mills, and looked into big-ag technology like roller mills — all of which crush the wheat berry in different ways and to different degrees of fineness, which can affect the final product. "I've been at this a long time. I'm not the new baker anymore, and I feel a responsibility to research things," he says. Bakers look to Tartine for guidance on ovens and flour, and Robertson is aware that what he does will set a precedent.

"If people are going to look at what I set up when I set up a mill, I want it to be something that will make the most nutritious [flour] and preserve as many vitamins and minerals as possible and have the best flavor," he says. "I don't really have that knowledge right now, but I'm going to the people that do and I'm going to figure it out."

To that end, Robertson recently spent a few days soaking up information at Washington State University wheat research and breeding center an hour north of Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is one of many parts of the country where a local grain economy is emerging. There are thriving pockets of experimentation with local, heritage grains in Arizona, North Carolina, upstate New York, Oregon, the Midwest. Los Angeles is about to open a boutique "urban flour mill" in Pasadena (of course). In a neat bit of groupthink, all of these cells have formed across the country nearly independently of each other, but are now connecting and sharing information.


One of the major drivers of this movement is the country's sudden, collective hysteria over gluten. As people with wheat intolerances (real or imagined) are seeking out alternatives to processed white flour and providing a market for these whole grain experiments, scientists and nutritionists have turned their attention to understanding why a nation of people is suddenly allergic to one of the most fundamental foods in history. Many believe that the culprit isn't gluten at all, which is after all just protein, but could be the way that commercial, industrial flour is grown and processed.

Modern, industrial wheat is bred for qualities like durability, yield, and disease-resistance, not for nutrition or flavor. Like an egg, a wheat berry has three parts — a husk, or shell; a germ, or yolk, which produces life; and a starchy white endosperm that has about as much nutritional value as an egg white. To make white flour, millers strip the berry of its husk and germ, leaving only the carbohydrates. They started doing this with the development of the roller mill in the late 19th century to prolong the shelf life, because the germ will cause the flour to go rancid, and for consistency, because the bran and germ create sharp edges that can pierce gluten and stop bread from rising.

White flour is so reviled in health circles because it's basically just refined carbohydrates, which cause blood sugar to spike, but doesn't offer anything else. Even whole-wheat flour made industrially isn't much better for you: It's made like white flour, but with the ground-up seed and germ put in at the end, though the integrity of the berry has been compromised (there is also some concern that the entire whole grain isn't put back at the end; the FDA guidelines for "whole grain" only require the item is 51 percent whole grain by weight). True whole-grain flour, crushed in a stone mill, contains all the parts of the seed, and many believe that it's better for those with wheat intolerance.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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