Fresh stone-milled flour is finding fans among artisan bakers and food lovers alike — it's a trend that's producing a tasty and healthier version of your daily bread.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Erika Heyrman scoops up a handful of speckled spelt flour as it falls from the thick granite stones of the whirring grain mill at Nootka Rose Milling Company. This is real whole grain flour — nothing added, nothing removed — ground from whole organic grains grown close to home. It’s the main ingredient in the rustic wheat-free, whole spelt loaves she makes at Wild Fire Bakery, bread that contains just three other ingredients, water, natural levain starter and sea salt. Nootka Rose Milling in Metchosin is a joint venture between Heyrman and baker Byron Fry of Fry’s Red Wheat Bakery. Their stone mill, built by New American Stone Mills in Vermont, supplies freshly-milled flour to both city bakeries and to consumers at their small country store. Sacks around the milling room are bulging with whole grain Red Fife and rye flour, next to the sandy germ and bran sifted from their rustic white flour. It’s fluffy and buff-coloured with a fresh grassy aroma. “Spelt is a softer ancient wheat with a lovely sweet, nutty flavour,” says Heyrman, rubbing the silky flour across her fingertips. “We make pastries and cakes with this.” Nootka Rose is just the latest chapter in a miller’s tale that has been evolving on Vancouver Island for nearly two decades, with the emergence of young bakers sourcing local, organic and heritage grains and milling fresh, stone-ground flour for their breads. It started with innovative bakers like Heyrman, Cliff Leir of Fol Epi and Jonathan Knight, the original owner of Cowichan Bay’s True Grain. Learning old skills — from milling grain to building traditional wood-fired ovens and slowly fermenting breads with wild yeasts — became the benchmark for this new breed of craft-driven bakers. Bakers connected with farmers growing organic and ancient grains, from emmer to einkorn, red spring and spelt. The art of old-fashioned milling was revived and perfected. When Leir opened his bakery at Dockside Green he built a simple but efficient stone mill that has become a prototype for artisan bakers across North America. Today, the rustic loaves produced at True Grain, Fol Epi, Wildfire, and Fry’s Red Wheat bakeries are all made with fresh, organic, stone-ground flour, milled daily. These bakers chose to mill for different reasons — to obtain fresh, unadulterated flour for their breads, to support the local economy and food systems, even to reduce their carbon footprint — but all agree that stone-milled flour is a world away from the highly refined white flour typically produced in today’s large, industrial flour mills. It’s healthier and tastier, too. “The bread tastes so good when you use fresh, stone-milled flour,” says baker Byron Fry of Fry’s Red Wheat Bakery. “I was immediately hooked.” “But there are also significant health benefits to consuming fresh, whole grain flour and breads,” he adds, pointing to a McGill University paper outlining the detriments of consuming industrial, rapid-rise breads, and the laundry list of additives, chemicals, stabilizers and preservatives routinely added by large commercial flour mills. “People who come here are raising their kids on my bread and that’s important.” Heyrman was a pioneer in artisan bread business and has been milling organic grain for her breads here for nearly 20 years. “All of our grain is organic, and all is from BC growers,” says Heyerman. “We grind all of our own whole grain flours at Wild Fire. It reflects my values, to be socially responsible and community oriented.” True Grain’s current owner, Bruce Stewart, now has bakeries in Cowichan Bay, Courtenay and Summerland, with a central stone milling facility to produce fresh, organic, BC-grown flour. “I did a greenhouse gas audit about five years ago – it was quickly evident that the biggest impact I could have, was inbound freight of grain (from Saskatchewan),” says Stewart. “Now every speck of flour in True Grain bread (or pastry or cookie) comes from a BC farm.” But Stewart is also concerned about the additives required and allowed in most flour sold. Ten large companies mill more than 3.5 million tones of wheat oats and barley in Canada each year and, according to Division 13 of the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, white flour “shall be free of bran and germ”, must be enriched with minerals stripped out in the milling process, and may contain a long list of chemical additives from amylase to l-cysteine. Some bran is added back to commercial wholewheat flour, but none of the germ, the main source of nutrients in wheat. Ironically, mills sell the wheat germ elsewhere, for use in animal feeds and supplements.
WHEAT WONKS As a child of the Canadian prairies, I never thought too much about where my flour was coming from — it seemed a given that The Grain Belt, The Bread Basket, (or however you describe that wide swath of flat farmland bisecting the country), was simply the source of the best wheat in the world. But then I met Stephen Jones, the director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University and a bit of a grain god in the world of artisan baking. He is an expert wheat breeder, an academic, a farmer, baker, and promoter of the idea that flour, like any other food, can literally be a reflection of its local roots. “We’re exploring the issue of terroir and bread,” says Jones, pointing to a patchwork field of small test plots at his Mount Vernon campus, more than 3,000 different wheat varietals grown, harvested and milled by grain graduate students. The lab acts as a hub for bakers, chefs, farmers and anyone else interested in working outside the industrial milling and baking model to create better bread. “We’re breeding new wheat with flavour, functionality and nutritional density in mind,” says Jones of the program that literally takes grain from the field to the fork. “All of my students work in the lab and they all bake — I require that.” This is grain designed for cultivation outside the current commodity system, for bakers and pasta makers who want to work with flour that’s ground in stone mills to preserve each grain’s unique qualities. “White flour and high yield are commodity wheat targets, but we deal with variation,” he explains. “We’ll develop a blue waxy wheat or a Red Russian for pasta. We also work with barley for brewing and buckwheat for soba.” Jones is also on a mission to educate consumers about freshly-milled whole grains, and what should, and should not, be found in your daily bread. Though 30 per cent of consumers report they have cut bread and gluten from their diets, due to real or perceived problems with digesting wheat, pinpointing the source of the problem is complicated. Whether it’s the modern hybridized wheat itself, the common practice of spraying grain crops with glyphosate (Roundup) as a desiccant before harvest, the various chemicals added to refined flour, or even the high-speed process of baking commercial bread, there’s little conclusive research. Most breads contain additives, from vital gluten and yeast to sugars and preservatives, Jones says, and rely on industrial baking protocols, from lots of added yeast to quick rises and bakes that take minutes rather than days. The white and whole wheat flour produced in major mills (and sold in supermarkets) is highly processed, treated with additives, preservatives, vitamins, maturing and conditioning agents. “It’s very tough to find a good plastic wrap bread,” he says, referring to the vast majority of bread products consumed today. By contrast, unadulterated, stone-milled flour and traditional slow, wild ferments create breads that are easier to digest, with more bio-available nutrients and a lower glycemic index. The time and superior ingredients add to the cost, but for the price of a specialty coffee, a healthy hand-crafted loaf is a bargain. At the university’s annual Grain Gathering, more than 250 artisan bakers, farmers and millers from across North America congregate. It’s literally ground zero for grain geeks, a place for artisan bread and pasta pioneers to share experiences and exchange information about grains, flour, fermentation, and milling. “Every year we come together to talk about bread, politics and local grain economies,” says Jones of the event that attracts people from “five provinces, 8 countries, 24 states.” “It’s just a little wheat field in Washington but it turns into a happening,” says Jones. Victoria’s Leir was one of the artisan bakers invited to speak at the first gathering in Washington, sharing his baking and milling expertise, and helping other bakers assemble mills and “dress” their millstones. Byron Fry and other BC bakers have also attended the event. “We call them our cool Canadian contingent,” says Jones.
SUPERIOR STAPLES Grain may be the final frontier when it comes to the locovore movement. And as we continue the quest for transparency and connection to our food sources, the commodity crops that literally supply “our daily bread” are under new scrutiny. For Shira McDermott and Janna Bishop of Vancouver’s GRAIN, tracing prairie grain and seed crops from farm to table, and connecting consumers with growers, is the priority. The goal is to put a face on prairie farmers and celebrate their Canadian crops. “We source directly from Canadian farmers and sell only premium export quality,” says McDermott of the whole grains including einkorn, emmer, spelt, Red Fife and Lilian Wheat, Laird green lentils, black lentils and chickpeas you’ll find in their distinctive brown paper boxes and bags. Their Red Fife and organic durum wheat flours are freshly stone-ground to order and sold online, and their products are labeled with caricatures (and bios) of the farmers who produced them. Though most are growing conventionally, McDermott says buying directly from farmers insures top grade grains and dried legumes. “Our basic necessities are bought and sold on markets like oil and gas,” she says, “but consumers deserve fresher flour and better quality dry goods.” In Victoria, can buy freshly-milled flour direct from local bakers. Fol Epi has whole grain or sifted Red Fife and rye flours for $4 and $5 a kg at its bakeries. Nootka Rose Milling sells bags of organic whole grains, legumes and stone-ground flour at their retail store, and stone-ground organic flours are available from True Grain. Stone milling flour, literally grinding the whole kernels of grain between two heavy granite stones, is the equivalent of “cold pressing” olive oil. Flour is produced slowly and at low temperatures, with all of the oils, germ, bran and nutrients intact. Though loaded with flavour, the downside to fresh, stone-ground flour is its limited shelf life. The oils in whole-grain flour will oxidize quickly and turn the flour rancid, so it must be used within weeks, or frozen for longer storage. You’ll also find local, organic and ancient grains in other local products, whether its pasta, beer or whisky. At Cowichan Pasta, Matt Horn uses semolina from ancient grains, including BC-grown organic khorasan, emmer, and spelt, milled by True Grain. The semolina necessary for pasta is a lucky by-product of the bakery’s sifted flours, and makes nutty, whole-grain pasta that’s easier to digest, says Horn. Island brewers have also helped raise the profile of local and ancient grains. Philips Brewing sources barley “grown 15 minutes away” and is the only craft brewer in the country malting barley on site. The award-winning Glen Saanich and Ancient Grains whiskies from deVine Vineyards in Saanich utilize barley grown on Vancouver Island and organic khorsan, emmer and einkorn from Okanagan growers.
A BAKER’S DOZEN The artisan bread baking world is small and there’s no doubt Victorians are spoiled for choice when it comes to healthy, wholegrain bread. Bakers who mill their own flour are very rare breed, and sourcing heritage, ancient and organic grain remains a challenge. But the appetite for good bread is on the rise and chefs, consumers and home bakers are all looking for flour with better nutrition, taste and provenance. “I think increasingly, people are buying based on their values,” says Stewart. “There is a degree of trust with us, from the field all the way through to the bake. It is bigger than the organics and stone milling, it’s about the craftsmanship of making proper bread.” It’s no wonder our daily bread is some of the finest in the land.
BUYING BREAD Looking for true artisan loaves that express the flavour, texture and terroir of organic, heritage and ancient grains? Here’s a taste: FOL EPI WHOLE WHEAT A dark, chewy loaf with lots of flavour from both the stone-milled Red Fife, both whole wheat and sifted, plus rye flour, and slow, wild yeast fermentation, it’s a robust bread with great character. FRY’S WHOLE WHEAT COUNTRY Made with organic Red Fife and a small percentage of organic rye flour, this is Fry’s classic German-style loaf, with strong rye flavour developed through the fermentation of freshly-milled flour. WILDFIRE RUSTIC WHITE This naturally leavened (levain) bread gets its flavour, chewy texture and crust from the slow rise and the stone-ground organic wheat flours — locally-grown wheat from Metchosin combines with certified organic BC wheat and rye. PORTOFINO VANCOUVER ISLAND WHOLE GRAIN This loaf is one of two Portofino makes using Metchosin-grown wheat that’s milled at the bakery in Victoria, and a two-day baking process to develop additional flavour. TRUE GRAIN “SMART CARB” LOAVES Organic ancient grains are stone-milled at three True Grain bakeries (including the original in Cowichan Bay) to create these wholegrain (emmer, spelt or khorasan) artisan breads they’ve labeled “the healthiest loaves money can buy”.
Copyright Cinda Chavich