The Gourmandise Grain Conference

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Crowd shot from the Stage (Photo Credit: Zach Pollack)

Clemence Gossett, Sabrina Ironside, and Jaclyn de Borja of the Gourmandise School put on an impressively informative, detailed, and delicious event within a mere six weeks. Bakers, chefs, market managers, food journalists, brewers and grain enthusiasts across Southern California convened for a day of workshops on how to work with whole grains.

Nan of Grist & Toll led a workshop on the Art of Milling, which, in reality, is a story of all aspects of the grain system. Milling connects the farmer to the baker to the eater and enables us to recognize the fullness of the fact that wheat has flavor. Wheat has the most flavor when it’s whole, stone-ground, and fresh. And you can’t find that in stores. Store shelves are stocked with modern wheat bred for a large endosperm, the starch, and stripped of the rest — the bran, the germ, the flavor. The germ and bran contain oils and nutrients that go rancid on store shelves, yet are the most nutritious elements. That means we’re not only losing flavor, we’re losing the healthy parts.

This is why I’m leading this Grain Campaign. I want to get local, whole grains into everyday bread. The objective is to get all California farmers’ market vendors to use 20% local, whole grains in their products by 2020. Local so that it’s fresh, whole because it’s healthy. We’ve been living without the choice of healthy whole grains because the entire food system is structured around transportability and shelf life stability. It’s a system to efficiently turn a profit.

So, I was confused by fellow panelists, the chefs and bakers, when they said they want to give customers comfort food: white bread. Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon said she wants customers to find something familiar; other panelists agreed and some audience members applauded this. Why, then, come to a conference on whole grains? White bread made from refined flour covers store shelves and fills dumpster upon dumpster. (I lived off of literal tons of dumpstered Semifreddi’s and ACME white bread loaves for years. Why buy white bread when it’s fresh and free?) It’s cheap and appeases the masses — the bread for the circus. It’s not as though this white bread ‘comfort food’ is somehow natural or good. That bread was created through a resource-intensive system built by government and industry over nearly a century. That system hides the true health, environmental, and fiscal costs of grain farming and acclimated people to cheap, illness inducing commodity grain. I went to the conference to further an alternative, and it didn’t seem like the other panelists were.

They didn’t even seem to be interested in increasing use of local grain. None of the panelists picked up a catalog or asked for more info. Some are hooked up with Tehachapi Grain Project and T&A Farms, and I celebrate that, but considering the volumes they reported going through in a week no single farm in California could provide enough. If we cultivated all of California in grain it still wouldn’t be enough to feed all Californians. But if we’re going to make a dent, if we’re going to make things better, we need local, freshly milled, whole grains.

Those grains don’t exist in the conventional system. Modern grains aren’t meant to be eaten whole. Their bran is brittle because it’s meant to flake off, and many are sprayed with chemicals throughout their lifetime. They’re grown far away such that the beneficial oils will have turned rancid. They’re also processed using a roller mill, which heats up and thereby destroys nutrients.

Where do you find healthy whole grains? The small scale farm growing organic heritage grain. Or the miller and baker who find those farmers. I’m one of those farmers, Nan of Grist and Toll is one of those millers, Dave Miller is a whole grain baker, and there are more of us. I made the California Grains catalog so people can find their nearest grain farmer and finally get some wheat that does the body good.

Beyond the farmer and miller, we need active, community supported regional grain hubs. It’s incredibly exciting to see them across the state, and I’m very honored to be helping them grow. In my capacity as a co-op developer, I’m working with small-scale grain farmers find cooperative solutions to shared problems — equipment, storage, and distribution. We need to work together to learn how to do this well and to lower costs.

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Top row: Red Fife 3 ways, Bottom row: Same shortbread recipe, 3 grains. Across the board: My Teeth profile

Price came up as an issue. The bakers and cooks said local whole grain is too pricey. Yet their loaves are $8-14 dollars. How does that break down? They all said they get flour from Central Milling, which maybe at most has some $1.50/lb flour. The rest of the loaf contains water (municipal?), salt, and free bacteria. I’m happy to support a skilled baker or chef, but where’s the skill in using homogeneous, predictably performing flour? Some bakers complain about the variability of small scale local wheat, but isn’t that what we want to celebrate? The photo on the right shows Red Fife as brioche, bread, and pastry made by Roxana Jullapat. She not only worked with a freshly milled heritage grain, she turned it into three different things we know well yet rich with flavor. Isn’t the delicious and healthful benefits of heritage grains worth the price? Bread used to be a meal and now is a vessel of empty carbs. The nominally extra cost makes a big impact on the nutritional value. Would it break the bank to incorporate a bit of local, whole grain flour? Organic, heritage, heirloom, non-GMO, food justice certified, local, fresh milled whole grains are more expensive because we don’t have support from subsidies, infrastructure, or a world-wide market. But it is worth it.

Again, that’s why I’m leading the California Grain Campaign. Us farmers need a way to get our grains out and more importantly to give people a chance to eat whole, real food.

For a small scale, heritage grain grower like me, the general ambivalence of bakers and eaters to these matters, the lack of government assistance (because I’m too small for subsidies), the barrier from small farm grants (because heritage grains are lumped in with commodity crops, so we don’t get special assistance), and near absence of scale-appropriate infrastructure can feel incredibly oppressive and hopeless.

Though the initial panel felt like a reiteration of the status quo, the rest of the day heartened this tired farmer. Many people shared their enthusiasm for local, whole grains and asked how to support. Blinking Owl brewery came in search of farmers to source from. Glenn Roberts, during his keynote, reiterated the importance of these efforts. Carlos of Superba expressed interest in figuring out how to incorporate whole grains, saying that now he has kids he’s attentive to nutrition. Evan Kleiman invited me on her show to get deeper into this. I met Minh Phan, who I’ve internet followed for awhile. I got to hang out with grain farmer brethren Nate Siemens, Larry Kandarian, Jon Hammond, and Alex Weiser, and with awesome pants Mia and Leyna. By the end, I felt optimistic, supported, and grateful. I felt happy to see that 100+ people wanted to spend a full weekday learning about whole grains. The Gourmandise School did a great job of bringing people together, exciting the movement, and are keeping up the momentum. I look forward to growing this with them and to checking in next year.

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Minh Phan leading a workshop on fermented grains

On a different note, this happened when TSA busted open the sack of grains in my suitcase:

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Red fife in my charger box