The New Bread Basket by Amy Halloran starts off a little like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The taste of a simple cookie, a madeleine, inspires a flood of memories for Proust. In Halloran’s case, an oatmeal ganache cookie, a treat from her husband, awakens a taste for flour and all that was entailed in bringing it to the oatmeal ganache cookie.
Despite the heavy presence of butter and chocolate, Halloran writes, she could actually taste the oatmeal. It’s a revelation that launched an obsession for flour, whole grains and the elevation of the farmer, miller and baker in our food chain.
Halloran was skeptical of the cookie, but it was more than she imagined it would be.
“Little did I know how many worlds that cookie would open,” she writes in the book’s introduction.
“Even against the backdrop of good butter and chocolate, I could taste the grains. Their flavour and freshness introduced me to the regional grain revival that was happening right under my nose.”
The Lost Culture of Grain, Milling and Baking
I read this terrific book a year ago and follow Amy Halloran on social media1. She’s a passionate grain aficionado. She has a mission to restore grain and the communities that work around it to the more meaningful role it played from the earliest civilization.
Halloran lives in rural New York state. She discovered a profusion of grain farmers, millers, and bakers that worked within a close distance to her home. The revelation brought on by that cookie set her on a quest to learn about grain, its uses, and the people who worked with the local product.
And it resulted in The New Bread Basket, an excellent book about the history and culture of bread and how modern processes have taken it away from its primary role in human civilization. Vast monocultural farming methods, industrial flour mills, and mass bread-baking operations have reduced bread to a mere commodity. It has produced gluten intolerance in people and high carbohydrate food products. Flour flavour and texture, are an afterthought. And the industrial control of flour and grain has separated us from the spiritual heart of breaking bread around the dinner table.
The story of wheat is the story of everything
Break down what our ancestors did to put bread on the table, and it’s a barely imaginable world. The work of tilling, seeding, harvesting, milling, and baking is invisible to all but a few of us, but it was hugely time consuming then. We have forgotten the knowledge of those eons of breeding, the lost crops, the way of life that centred around the wheat farms.
“The story of wheat is the story of everything,” Halloran says.
Halloran is a great storyteller with a journalist’s eye for detail. She tells of people and communities at home and around the world that are trying to restore the farmer-miller-baker relationship and revitalize pre-industrial bread making. Their stories often start with problems and seat-of-their-pants solutions that seem to work out. Before you know it, food co-ops have sprung up, farmer’s collectives, miller-bakers relationships, community pride.
One of Halloran’s characters is a farmer, Thor Oeschsner, who works a farm in Newfield, New York2. Growing wheat on a small scale, outside the U.S. or Canadian grain belts, may seem a crazy thing to do. Halloran colours Thor’s livelihood with the day-to-day tasks, interruptions, decision-making, and problem-solving. It’s not unlike a lot of ordinary jobs.
Birth of a grain community
The magic happens when Thor invests in a small bakery, the Wide Awake Bakery because it’s another market for his grains. Other investors might be millers, and community members interested in buying and eating well-baked bread. It becomes a grain-based community, where there was little before. All of these small-scale “artisans” in Halloran’s book are renewing the sense of kinship and sharing that bread meant to our ancestors a hundred years ago
It’s an inspiring look at this burgeoning new world that, in no small degree, I find myself on the edge of on my perch here on Pender Island. No one grows grain here, but each week I go to Nootka Rose Mill3 in Metchosin on Vancouver Island. I mill a small portion of the flour used in Happy Monk bread, but more and more, I use the freshly milled flour at Nootka Rose.
There are small scale grain farms on Vancouver Island. Still, Nootka Rose imports its grain from Armstrong, B.C., nearly 500 miles away in the Okanagan region. `Fieldstone Organics, a certified organic grain handling facility that gathers whole grains, legumes, and seeds from local farmers. Fieldstone is a kind of grain clearing house. It’s much like the prairie wheat pool co-operatives that once distributed grain from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Nootka Rose is a mill owned and operated by two of Victoria’s best bakeries, Wildfire Bakery and Fry’s Bakery. Both operations use the grain milled at Nootka Rose that originated in Armstrong. Both bakeries are committed to whole grain, naturally-yeasted breads, and pastries. Their flour is the kind of high quality that you get from true “artisans.”
Jennifer and I love the weekend trips to Nootka Rose, where the Happy Monk flour/grain orders are waiting for us. The New American Stone Mill and sifter whirs quietly in the back part of the store. I often get a peek at it before the miller emerges, brushing flour off his clothes and face. There’s a fine layer of flour on the jars of preserves and store merchandise.
I enjoy talking to the miller about his job. How he tempers some especially hard grains with small amounts of water or how the millstones need to be dressed to keep them grinding the finest grade of flour.
It’s a pleasure knowing a little about this part of the production chain. I’ve never been to a grain farm to see the amber waves of grain, but it’s on our bucket list!
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
Happy Monk Tidings - November 2, 2022 🍞 - BAKER'S CHOICE: Cinnamon-Raisin Bread; BLOG: A Vancouver Neighbourhood; BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 28, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice: The Approachable Loaf; Blog: This Island of Apples; South Pender Growers and Makers Market [ See LinkTree in Profile ]
#apples #applebread #applelove #approachable #approachableloaf #breadlabcollective #breadlab...
Introducing this bread, Raven Ring Bread (a take on Hapanleipä, a Finnish bread) a recipe borrowed from @ravenbreads. The stand is made by my neighbour, Ken, a gifted woodworker. See you at the South Pender Growers and Makers Market, if it don’t rain too hard!...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 2, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice : Volkornbrot (German Rye); Blog: The Golden Loaf of Gorsefield Rye; NOTE: We're closing two weeks for Mildrith Maintenance [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
It was a dirty day, Wednesday. The sky hadn't been washed, the ocean was soiled, and the air was muggy and smelled oily. Then, moments before the rain started, the sun shone through and a glorious slash of colour opened up. And a rainbow! No unicorns, sadly....
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This is James Morton, my father, who would have been 100 years old today if we hadn't lost him 36 years ago. I've surpassed him in living age and spent more years without him than with him, yet he still whispers in my ear and is a great listener when I talk to him. Taken at 14th Ave. and Burgess St., Burnaby, 'round about 1955. Handsome devil, ain't he?...