Wheat Nerds and Scientists Join Forces to Build a Better Bread

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A few days ago, in the middle of a field, Dawn Woodward and Jeff Yankellow presented me with a whole-wheat croissant, the thought of which would normally make me wretch. That pastry carried a pedigree, though. I was in Washington's fertile Skagit Valley at the Grain Gathering, a conclave of 250 of the best bakers, millers, grain scientists, and industry types from the United States, Canada, and five other countries. Woodward, a baker at Evelyn's Crackers bakery, and Yankellow, of King Arthur Flour, would have been fools to try to pull a fast one on this crowd.

As someone who's lived in France for 10 years and written about food for 15—and is cognizant of the bile likely to appear in the comment section at the bottom of this page—I will say this anyway: This pastry stood shoulder-to-shoulder with top-flight Parisian croissants.

Like me, legions of people are averse to whole-grain anything. Experts attending the Grain Gathering and their acolytes share that opinion, but they strive to make such foods so delicious that you might need to reconsider. Backing it up with a ton of lab and kitchen legwork, and taking into account the viability of everyone who deals with the grains, from the field to your table, the best minds in the whole grain field want to sell the masses on flavor.

The Grain Gathering is an annual event (this year's was the seventh) spearheaded by Stephen Jones, a Washington State University researcher who runs the WSU-affiliated Bread Lab. He enjoys a reputation as one of the most quietly powerful voices in food, and he, along with the Bread Lab, want to break the stranglehold of commodity wheat—the stuff that makes the white flour that bakers typically use and you typically buy.

"We want to grow wheat, mill it, and bake it right here," Jones says. Initially "right here" meant the Skagit Valley, but as the reputations of the Grain Gathering, the Bread Lab, and Jones himself grew, thousands of other right heres sprouted across the US and around the world.

In the current system, commodity wheat farmers are not exactly killing it financially. Jones wants to change that by working with everyone in the chain, from scientists like him to farmers, millers, bakers, and consumers. "We want to get value to the farmer and keep it here in the region," he says. Value? "Dollars," he says. "It has to work for the farmer. After that, we can figure out the rest."

Jones is the nexus for this, but the crowd at the Grain Gathering is what will make it happen. It requires an amazing amount of science, time, and hard work to bring a new grain to market, but everyone here knows the key to success is psychological: getting consumers to understand how good artisan whole-grain foods can taste.

"The nutrition professional of tomorrow goes out into the fields and thinks about how to make food taste good," says Nanna Meyer, associate professor in health sciences, nutrition, sports, and sustainability at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Meyer has been a dietitian with the likes of the United States Olympic Committee, the Swiss National Ski Team, and USA Cycling, yet taste is the first subject she brings up.

At school, students work in the kitchen and in the fields.

"They're very Colorado. They're extremely fit. They look healthy," she says. "It gets other students thinking, 'This is cool.'"

Fresh Take

The Gathering emphasizes flavor at every meal. Along with that croissant, I saw loaf after incredible (and often experimental) loaf popped out of Bread Lab’s ovens and from a few wood-fired ovens trailered here by far-flung bakers and chefs. One evening, Mark Doxtader of Tastebud in Portland, Oregon, slung scores of pizzas. In the following days, I enjoyed pies, turnovers, and bagels. Cookbook author Naomi Duguid taught a tandoor flatbread class. Everything featured whole grains. Everything was delicious.

"If you say to people, 'This is good for you,' they won't eat it," says professionally trained baker and Oregon State University cereal scientist Andrew Ross. "People like to enjoy what they eat. You need to focus on flavor and texture."

Ross helps breeders create new varieties of wheat by working with others in the supply chain. "If a breeder has a specific trait to target—a color, a texture—I can measure those traits and select the grain or grains to use," he says.

It takes time. Two parent plants can have a host of traits—desirable and undesirable—and each of their progeny are different. Only through continued sorting of offspring with desirable traits do you start winnowing toward a fairly consistent new breed. Creating that new strain can take 10 to 12 years from the original cross, and even then things change; the flour is still the product of a living organism.

Professional bakers constantly run into these quirks. Josey Baker, owner of San Francisco's Josey Baker Bread and co-owner of a retail store called The Mill, experiences them all the time. People even accused him of making his loaves progressively smaller, when in fact the wheat for his flour (always in the same amount) had changed over a few seasons, altering the form of the bread. "Consistency is very difficult, if not impossible, but figuring it out is our job," he says. "The long 'con' is sticking to our guns until we get it in peoples' mouths."

Stephen Jones gets this, and says he's in it for the long haul. "There's no button for developing a new variety of wheat in the commodity system. Novelty is not allowed," Jones says.

Germ of an Idea

So far, in terms of developing something new, the Bread Lab has launched Skagit 1109, a hard red winter wheat created in a relatively quick six years. That drew the attention of top-tier bakers and chefs like Baker and Blaine Wetzel.

For a strain of purple wheat that the Bread Lab hopes to bring to market, scientists find a source (Denmark), cross and breed for an area (the belt of land west of the Cascade Range between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Eugene, Oregon), then get small quantities into the fields. From there, they solicit feedback from the likes of Mel Darbyshire, head baker at Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle.

The whole cycle can go back to the drawing board at any point, but if everyone's happy, the Bread Lab can ramp up, make a few tons of seed, and—get this—start giving the seeds away to farmers.

"There's no intellectual property," Jones says, referring to patent-protected seeds made and sold by the likes of Monsanto and DuPont. But bringing together some of the best of the best, the Grain Gathering helps get it out there and, hopefully, into our mouths.

Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.

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