This post is long overdue. The year turned out to be a marvellous whirlwind with lots of work, and, in the middle of it all, we jumped, head first, into house-hunting and bought a house. Yup, an actual house with a back and front yard. Given that this was something we were merely considering at the start of 2013, the purchase and subsequent remodel left us both shell-shocked, elated, and also, a little more aware of the limits of our home improvement skills. Before life swept me up in its chaos however, I carved out some time in late-Spring to chat with the folks at Community Grains, and spent an afternoon at Front Porch Farm, one of their partner farms in Healdsburg. Their stories follow, accompanied by images from the farm.
Community Grains was a project born out of curiosity in 2010 that very quickly took on a life of its own. Bob Klein, founder and chief gourmand at Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant took an active interest in grains and their flours, and sought to answer the question: Can grains be more exciting? Can they taste good? “No” was not an acceptable answer, so the quest for flavor took him down the rabbit hole of heirloom varieties, milling processes and, now through Community Grains, an effort to bring more transparency to the production and processing of grains: the variety, where it was grown and how it was milled.
“It became mission-esque”, said Bob, of his whole grain journey to date. “I wanted to understand grains in a whole new way and to work more closely with grain farmers. To do this, we needed new infrastructure to obtain the information necessary for understanding the full potential of whole wheat grains according to each baker’s need. For commercial bakers, they’d be keen to know about each flour’s protein composition and gluten strength. For home cooks, it would be to understand how different flours work and their flavor profiles. It’s endless.”
Essential to Community Grains’ goal of educating the consumer is in the way their flours are milled. The majority of whole-wheat flours available today are milled in a process where the grain’s endosperm and bran are separated at the start then reconstituted at the end so as to ensure a shelf-stable product. The cost of this process is that the final product is often less nutritious and less flavorful than one where the grain was milled whole.
“Whole wheat has a bad rep in the market, for lacking in flavor and texture, and it’s a valid point. Conventional whole wheat flour just doesn’t taste good,” Bob said. “With Community Grains, we’re not looking to create whole grain products that taste good ‘considering they’re whole grain’. Instead, we’re looking to elevate it as a product by producing it in a way that maximizes the flavor inherent in each varietal of grain, whether it’s the Red Winter Wheat we use or Hard Amber Durum for our dried pastas.”
By partnering with local grain farmers and millers to bring their products to market, his organization is effectively building a local grain economy from the ground up, while establishing a new standard of whole grain production, by guaranteeing that their whole wheat products are truly milled whole. In another effort to bring more transparency to the whole grain production process, they offer a limited selection of ‘Identity-Preserved’ wheat pasta, where each package bears the details about the variety of wheat used, where it was grown, when it was harvested and where and when it was milled.
The Fusilli Lunghi currently available online was made from wheat grown at Front Porch Farm, a 110-acre, picturesque property nestled among the hills of Healdsburg by a little creek. Unless you live in Healdsburg or its vicinity, you’ve likely not heard of them as most of their produce goes directly to local restaurants and wholesale customers.
“We’re heavily focused on diversity at Front Porch Farm, and this philosophy guides every decision we make for the land,” shared Sam Bilbro, my host for the afternoon. “Our farm manager, Matt Taylor, is a firm believer in the principles of biodynamic agriculture, where the farm is viewed as a holistic entity and its components – soil, plants, livestock – depend on the health of each other in order to succeed. When we took over, the land had been used exclusively for growing vines for years, so our first move was to change that. We removed all but 12 acres of vines and replaced them with olive trees, fruit trees, a vegetable garden and a nine-acre field for grains. We also introduced chickens, for their eggs and a herd of Boer goats.”
Thanks to Bob’s gift of some Bolero wheat seeds at the beginning, what started as an experiment in grain farming is now a staple of the farm’s product line which has expanded to include other grain varieties like oats, rye, farro and flint corn. Grains are planted in the Spring and Fall, and the Fall plantings are dry-farmed over the winter.
“It’s funny because when Bob first approached us, Peter Buckley, the farm’s owner, agreed to plant those seeds simply because he enjoyed the beautiful sight of a grain field in the wind,” Sam explained. “He didn’t anticipate the tide of demand for heirloom grains, so to have that part of the farm’s business take off, that was a pleasant surprise.”
While the farm now has its own mill for flour-making, they previously enlisted the help of Doug Mosel, a grain farmer in Mendocino and the brains behind the Mendocino Grain Project, for that part of the process. Doug used to bring his mill to the farm after each harvest to do the job, simply because the facilities available only milled whole-wheat flours using conventional processes, not the Community Grains way. This lack of infrastructure for small-batch, whole-grain milling is one of the key challenges of the mission.
“We are trying to build an alternative system to the current model of grain production,” Bob explained, “One that is transparent, from grain-to-table, with a focus on quality, flavor and nutrition, while showing the market how whole grain and whole wheat products can actually be both nutritious and flavorful.”
It is not an easy task, but since the project began in 2010, consumer awareness around conventionally produced wheat and its impact on the body has increased, alongside Community Grains’ education efforts through its blog and the Oliveto talk series, “It’s Complicated”.
“It’s a process,” Bob said. “Not all our products are organically-produced at the moment because our current focus is on education and getting the infrastructure up and running. Over time, with enough demand, I’m confident that more grain farmers will seek out ways to grow organically and it will find the momentum of its own.”
Bob’s enthusiasm for whole wheat and whole grain products is infectious, and after tasting the Floriani red flint polenta served at Oliveto, I can see why. My previous experiences with polenta (using traditional store-bought cornmeal) have been less than stellar, so although I was skeptical about the prospect, I knew I had to give it a try for the purposes of this story. It turned out to be a very wise decision. This polenta turned out to be the tastiest I’ve ever had and has me hooked, but more about that in my next post. In the meantime, check out the Community Grains database for a selection of whole wheat recipes to try out. I’ve used their whole wheat flour for pasta and galette dough to stellar results and have heard good things about their chocolate chip cookie and shortbread recipes. I suppose there’s only one way to find out.