chefs collaborative sustainable food report
It All Comes Down to Grain BETTER FLAVOR, BETTER FOR THE FOOD SYSTEM
“Get a grain mill and do it. It’s really easy,” says Chef Tim Wiechmann of T.W. Food in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who mills his own flour in house. “People are always really impressed that I mill my own flour,” Wiechmann says, “but it’s not that big of a deal.” Maybe not to execute, but freshly milled flour is a very big deal when it comes to flavor. Wiechmann compares freshly milled flour to freshly ground coffee. “You probably wouldn’t want to buy coffee that had been ground a year ago,” he says. The same goes for grains. Whether it’s for grinding flour or featuring them whole on the menu, chefs who source grains directly from the farm are motivated by the enhanced flavor as well as the stories behind the grains, the most ancient of our domesticated plants. But while sourcing and working with whole grains and freshly milled flours has many benefits, it is not without challenges.
In this paper, we will lay out the important factors to think about when sourcing grain, both whole and milled, explore the history and current status of whole grain and flour production in the US, and discuss the benefits and challenges associated with sourcing and preparing direct-source grains.
Great Grains EINKORN Originating ten to twelve thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent, einkorn is the most ancient wheat related grain. Because it is a wild variety, it has almost twice the amount of minerals and protein as modern wheats, thus contributing to its enhanced flavor. It can be eaten as a whole grain but also makes great all-purpose flour for bread and pastry baking. In addition, the ancient gluten structures of einkorn have shown to be safer for people with gluten allergies. Eli Rogosa, founder of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, who grows and bakes with einkorn, calls it a “wonder grain.”
Factors to Consider HERITAGE AND ORGANIC
Commodity grains, most of which are scientific hybrids—bred to thrive in industrial-scale conditions—require synthetic inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides as well as intensive irrigation to create their ideal growing conditions. Modern bread wheats, for example, were bred to succeed in our heartland prairies, the region where their production is centered. Heritage grains, on the other hand, are also known as “landrace,” which means that they self-maintain their genetic diversity and adapt to grow well in a range of specific climates and geographies, and their seeds can be saved and replanted. Many farmers are refocusing on growing heritage varieties and learning how to make the most of heritage grain diversity
EMMER/FARRO Emmer, known more commonly as farro, is the oldest species of wheat, and the species from which all wheat has evolved. “Restaurant chefs cherish the nutty sweetness and delicate chew,” writes Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. April 2012 Communiqué | page 1
and quality. Chefs and bakers can provide a market to revitalize and preserve the diverse and incredible tastes of heritage grains in danger of being lost today. SUSTAINABILITY
In terms of both flavor and environmental impact, the most important consideration in purchasing grain is that it is grown using sustainable agriculture methods, by farmers who consider themselves stewards of the land. Unlike commodity grains, heritage grains are genetically resistant to stress from drought and disease, require less water and inputs, and are higher yielding in organic conditions. This, over the long term, is a critical factor in sustainability. Cutting edge chefs and bakers are now reaching out to source smaller scale, local and sustainable grain production all across the country. If you cannot find a local source, many recommend that chefs talk to their farmers and encourage them to start growing grain. NUTRITION AND FLAVOR
Unlike commodity grains, which constitute more than 99% of our grain supply, heritage grains are typically grown for flavor and high nutrition content. Heritage grains (see sidebar for examples) have unique flavors and textures not found in commodity grains. While this is true of whole grains, it is especially notable in flour. Commodity wheat for industrial flour, for example, is stripped of all germ and bran—essentially all the nutritious parts of the grain—in order to create a uniform, shelf stable flour product. On the contrary, small batch whole grain flours often retain the whole grain. One of the greatest realizations for people tasting goods made with small batch flour for the first time, says Clifford Hatch of Upingil Farm in Gill, Massachusetts, is that they can taste the whole grain—the
germ, the bran and the endosperm. In addition, almost all small batch flours are milled to order, creating a fresher and tastier product. The flavor component is critical to the success of these products in the marketplace, says Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina. “If the taste isn’t remarkable, you won’t get anyone’s attention.”
History of grain culture “About 50 years ago the grain culture changed in America: small acreages of organic grain faded away, along with the local flour mills that served them. Everything flowed to the Midwest, where conglomerates bred grain for yield and super-consistency. This commodity product could be shipped anywhere to bake the same bread in anybody’s kitchen or bakery.” (Phillips, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 08-11-11.) In addition to the industry’s consolidation, another turning point in the history of grain in the US was the introduction of the steel roller mill in the 19th century that could strip whole grains of their wheat and bran to create white flour with a long shelf life. By extending flour’s shelf life through the process of stripping, the steel roller mill paved the way for the commodification of flour.
With these changes, flour became the first food to be centrally produced and widely distributed. Today, most food in America is produced and distributed this way. While many chefs and consumers nationwide are priori-
tizing the purchase of local meats, vegetables and seafood, sustainably grown grain is now reappearing in local markets. Chefs and bakers are beginning to drive this change by collaborating with farms and organizations throughout the country working to bring back ancient and heritage varieties of grain. “It all comes down to grain,” says chef Dan Barber. “Yes, because it’s delicious—a whole world of flavor that’s been ignored for the past 50 years—but also because it’s a critical missing link in any community’s ability to feed itself.” (Phillips, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 0811-11.) Farmers across America are testgrowing heritage grain varieties on the brink of loss and reviving the knowledge base and infrastructure for growing them. Eli Rogosa, founder of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and a Massachusetts-based grain grower, seed saver, and baker, extols their unique and delicious flavors. “It knocks your socks off when you eat these ancient varieties.” She likes to think about what she calls “grain terroir.” “There is a vast biodiversity in grains,” she says, “There are different textures, aromas, and flavors. Terroir is opening the way people think about coffee and wine, and it’s time we start thinking about grain this way too.”
Versatility of whole grains
Whole grains are versatile; chefs use them all over the menu and in almost any cuisine. “On any given day, emmer appears four or five times on the menu,” says chef Seth Caswell of emmer&rye in Seattle, who named his restaurant as an homage to grain farmers in Eastern Washington. For Caswell it is intriguing when a farmer can create a new product from something that is actually very old, and provide the opportunity for chefs
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to develop a new dish. Caswell serves farro fries—farro cooked like polenta, poured onto a sheet pan to cool and solidify, and then cut into sticks and fried. He also experiments with cooking whole emmer and rye berries together. Since they have different cook times, the emmer gets creamy while the rye berries retain an al dente crispness. “I can use this anywhere,” he says, “from a soup garnish, to meat stuffing, to a pilaf side dish, or even as an ingredient for salad.” Caswell also uses both emmer and rye flours, sometimes in combination with other wheat flours, to make house-made pastas, crackers and biscuits for his breakfast menu. Like Caswell, chefs around the country are finding innovative ways to incorporate grains into their menus. The options for each grain seem limitless. For example, black barley, says chef Michael Holleman of Indian Harvest, a rice and grain company in Bemidji, Minnesota, can be served roasted with fall vegetables, cooked as a paella or risotto, featured in a barley salad, soup, or stuffing. Its depth of color and texture, high fiber and protein content—as well as its history—make it appealing to chefs.
Addressing the challenges
As with most small-scale food production and items grown primarily for taste, there are challenges involved with the preparation of small-batch grains. Working with a highly perishable, fresh heirloom tomato, for example, is different than dealing with a mass produced tomato, harvested with a machine and bred for uniformity and durability. The same is true for grains. Challenges arise both in cooking with whole grains, as well as in baking with small batch flours. The greatest challenge of cooking with whole grains,
however, can also be exciting for most chefs: creating dishes using unfamiliar heritage varieties. It is baking with small batch flours that vary in texture, quality, gluten and protein content from commodity flours that often poses greater challenges. “It is absolutely possible to bake with heritage varieties,” asserts Sheryl Maffei of Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts, “you just need to pay attention.”
For chefs and bakers used to working with commodity flour, adaptations are necessary when working with milledto-order heritage grain flours. Sean Brock, executive chef at Husk and McCrady’s restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, worries that other chefs may be disappointed with the initial outcome when they first try using small batch and heritage grains and do not realize the need to make adjustments to their recipes. When Brock first started using small batch wheat flours, none of his original recipes worked. He and his crew had to make several adjustments, including changing the amount of flour and experimenting with cooking times. Brock encourages chefs to keep trying because the taste and quality is so superior, and the stories behind the food are so important. “When you can direct a movie in someone’s head while they are consuming their food,” he says, “it’s going to taste better.” Grand Central Bakery in Portland and Seattle sources only sustainably produced flours. Piper Davis, bakery cuisine director, noted the challenge of meeting the demand for artisan bread that requires specific qualities such as consistency and very specific protein content: characteristics that come from white flour. “There is a place in sustainable cuisine for a crisp baguette or an open and chewy ciabatta,” says Davis. While one hundred
BLACK BARLEY Originating in Ethiopia, black barley has been grown in the US for the past 20 years. It is high in protein and fiber and has an incredible depth of color and flavor. The bran layer of black barley is edible and stays intact thereby increasing the nutrition and texture profile of the grain. It can be used for paella, risotto, salads, and it also goes great in soups and stuffings. “Barley can be sexy,” writes Candy Sargon in the Washington Post. “Truly sensitive, inventive chefs know this.” HAND HARVESTED WILD RICE Grown in lakes and rivers, wild rice is rich with tradition. The Ojibwe Native Americans have been harvesting it for approximately 300 years and their ancient harvest techniques are still in practice today. Commonly grown in the lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada, it is the only rice that can be harvested by hand. It has an earthy, grassy note to it and according to Jenny Muir in A Cooks Guide to Grain, wild rice “is one of the most delicious and visually enticing grains.”
Resources Regional grain operations are emerging all over the country. Here are just a few used by chefs in our network: Anson Mills (South Carolina) www.ansonmills.com Bluebird Grain Farms (Eastern Washington State): www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com Bob’s Red Mill (Oregon) www.bobsredmill.com Cayuga Pure Organics (Upstate New York): www.cporganics.com Four Star Farms (Western Massachusetts) www.fourstarfarms.com Indian Harvest (Minnesota) www.indianharvest.com Heartland Mill (Kansas) www.heartlandmill.com Rancho Gordo (California) www.ranchogordo.com Check out our website: www.chefscollaborative.org for an extended list of resources. April 2012 Communiqué | page 3
percent whole grain flour creates a very different sort of artisan bread, using combinations of flours is a great way to use a wider variety of grains in bread. Davis also says that white flour milled from no-till or organically grown wheat seems to be a “happy medium between mainstream taste and sustainable production.” On the whole, she says, Americans are more interested in white breads. “Mainstreaming a higher quality in terms of sustainable grain production,” she says, “is going to require an absolute palate change.”
Increasing the prominence of grains on the plate
In many cultures, grains are central to the meal. Across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, meat often plays a smaller role than grains, vegetables and fruit particularly because it tends to be more expensive. In the US today, this is no longer true, and it’s part of why whole grains have faded from the American diet. They have been largely replaced by artificially inexpensive animal proteins. But since “eighty percent of agricultural production is devoted to raising grain to feed us or animals,” notes chef Barber, “we’ll never achieve sustainability if we limit our focus to the produce and proteins.” (Phillips, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 08-11-11.)
Reaping the benefits
Think of the benefits of sourcing produce or meat directly from the farm where it was grown. You build relationships with your farmers, help to keep land in agricultural production, and get a product that is fresher and often more nutritious, to name a few. All of these benefits and more apply to direct-source grains. Brooke Lucy of Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, WA emphasizes the superiority of their product because unlike conventional grain, which goes through approximately ten different hands between field and consumer, she and her husband take their grains “all the way from the plow to its final product.” The results are brilliant, local, heritage grain foods with unique and compelling flavors and textures that lead to a cultural sense of place and community identity. Grain composes half of the average person’s calories. While we will not be able to fill all of this with small batch and heritage varieties, it is important for chefs to embrace the rich histories and unique flavors of heritage grain varieties so they can continue to feed us into the future. According to Glenn Roberts, “whoever controls the food, controls the world.” Although it will take some time and experimenting to get used to, we should assert control of our food systems by seeking out these disappearing grain varieties and continuing to convey the histories of different foods through the meals that we serve.
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This paper researched and written by intern Megan Browning, spring 2012. Chefs Collaborative works with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. The Collaborative inspires action by translating information about our food into tools for making sustainable purchasing decisions. Through these actions, our members embrace seasonality, preserve diversity and traditional practices, and support local economies. April 2012 Communiqué | page 4
Published on May 10, 2012
A Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Report on the re-emergence of locally and sustainably grown grains in regions of the U.S. Written for...