If you know me, you know I'm obsessed with craft bakeries, particularly my local one in Portland: Tabor Bread. The baker at Tabor makes a sprouted grain and seed loaf with red fife flour grown in the Willamette Valley that's got a nutty flavor with caramel notes and a hint of sour. It's perfect as toast, slathered with butter, but also makes an excellent sandwich bread.
I wrote a short piece in this month's Hemispheres magazine about the trend of bakers sourcing heirloom grains and milling them in-house with stone mills (which preserves both the nutrition and the flavor of the grain.)
behind the scenes at Portland's Tabor Bread
Bucking the gluten-free trend, heirloom grains and real bread make a comeback
A gluten-free craze has taken the nation by storm. But there’s also been an equally strong—though less publicized—pro-grain movement. Across the country, craft bakers have shown a renewed interest in heirloom wheat and rye varieties, each of which boasts a unique flavor profile that speaks to its rich history and local agricultural influences. Think of it as grain terroir.
Many of the wheats currently seeing a resurgence were once grown abundantly in America but fell out of favor in the late 1800s with the advent of roller mills, which efficiently remove the bran and the germ to make white flour. The problem? The germ tastes great. “The germ is not only where the nutrients and fatty acids are, it’s the flavor center,” says David Bauer, owner and baker at Farm & Sparrow Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina. He grinds his heirloom grains with a stone mill to preserve both the bran and the germ.
Bauer first came across Wren’s Abruzzi rye—an Italian cultivar that came to U.S. shores through Charleston during the colonial era—in a Virginia field, where it was being used (unceremoniously) to suppress weeds. “He was cover-cropping his fields with it!” Bauer says of the land’s farmer, sounding scandalized. Softer than the German rye typically grown in the U.S., this variety boasts a rich umami flavor, which Bauer describes as “bright and spicy.” It’s become a favorite in his seeded rye breads at Farm & Sparrow, and he uses it in his rye-cacao shortbread at All Souls Pizza, the Asheville pizzeria he co-owns with a local chef.
Red Fife, another ancient grain, came from Ukraine to Canada via a Scottish immigrant in the mid-1800s and is now making a comeback in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where farmer Tom Hunton at Camas Country Mill is growing it to the delight of area bakers and bread lovers. Herbaceous and nutty, with caramel notes, Red Fife has become a hit at Portland’s Tabor Bread, where it’s used in toothsome loaves like the popular sprouted grain and seed. “It’s really mild and slightly sweet,” says baker Brad Holderfield. “It doesn’t have a bitter quality the way a lot of red wheat does.”
Josey Baker's California Heirloom loaf, made with Sonora wheat grown by "badass farmer" Sally Fox
At San Francisco’s The Mill, the aptly named Josey Baker has developed an obsession for einkorn (German for “single grain”), a grassy, nutty variety that ranks as the world’s oldest wheat cultivar; farmers were probably growing it more than 10,000 years ago. Those original farmers seem to have been onto something: Not only is the variety more nutritious than modern wheats (it’s higher in protein and beta-carotene), but einkorn also contains—for people who care about such things—less gluten. “It’s like you took a loaf of adolescent Wonder Bread and let it mature into a fully developed and nuanced version of itself,” Baker says. Although The Mill’s einkorn bread is made of only water, salt, sourdough starter and whole-grain flour, it comes out of the oven smelling like honey. “It’s my favorite bread we’re making now.”