When it comes to growing rare, organic heritage grains, states like Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New York, even Eastern Pennsylvania, have the jump on western Pennsylvania. They’ve been at it about a decade longer.
They have behind them the earliest struggles of distribution. They’ve had time to develop a whole cadre of skilled specialists -- millers, bakers, and maltsters -- who fuel a level of demand that makes things profitable for the farmer.
When the Post-Gazette introduced readers to our own region’s grain pioneers three years ago we found a movement in its infancy, with infrastructure so primitive it almost wasn’t there at all. Lots has happened since — with more farmers planting more fields of these special organic grains and selling all they can produce. There are still frustrations -- but elation too as new partnerships are struck that change the balance of the equation.
I love making whole-wheat drop biscuits as underpinning for peach shortcake.
Not a bit heavy, they are “short” and tender, earthy and sweet.
They owe their pizzazz to old-variety grains being sowed once again in Western Pennsylvania fields. Flours made from flavorsome kernels like these have not been tasted here since 1940 when the community grain mills vanished.
The biscuits’ unbleached wheat flour comes from wheat grown by Nigel Tudor at Weatherbury Farm in Avella and milled there on the farm. Named for the village in Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the farm boasts the properties original granary and thrives today as an incubator for pre-industrial heritage grains. The land is in a topsoil-rich part of Washington County, documented to have produced high-quality grain since 1876.
The whole wheat was grown for Clarion River Organics, CRO partner Nate Holmes says, “by Amish farmers on small hilly fields and harvested with horses. They are processed with machinery designed in the 1800s at a small Amish mill in Ohio.”
Mr. Tudor and Mr. Holmes are among our region’s fiercely focused grain specialists reaching out to collar a market with something old that should taste very new.
There are reasons why these grains “taste different from those on the grocery store shelf,” holds longtime local grain advocate Chef Dan Barber, who heads Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
His new book, “The Third Plate,” offers a vantage of sustainability that takes a deep look at grain:
• Soil: One difference, no surprise, local organic grains are nourished sustainably through “thoughtful crop rotation and careful soil management.”
• Breeding: “But even with good rotation, flavor may not be there. We’ve lost the taste of wheat because we have stopped breeding for flavor,” Mr. Barber says. To find that pre-industrial flavor, today’s grain pioneers are selecting varieties called “landrace,” grown on family farms where they were treasured for flavor and hardiness, with seeds that have been passed on over generations or centuries. “Landrace crops adapted and changed depending on the environment and the preferences of the culture. It was a rich reservoir of diversity that came to a very sudden end.”
Seed for landrace grain fell into short supply. Seeds for any grain but the Midwest model, bred for yield and uniformity, nearly disappeared during the 1990s, when Monsanto bought up many smaller organic seed companies.
Enter grain evangelist Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina, who got chefs on board with the flavors and aroma of old varieties he had found languishing in fields. “Once chefs try this stuff, once they cook it and taste it, it’s sold. A chef like Thomas Keller has a vetting process that relies on his tongue. It’s the final word.” Chefs became the Charleston seed-saver’s “beacons.” He then bankrolled farmers to grow crops.
• Freshness: Besides pedigree, freshness of grind sets local grains apart, Chef Barber says. “Most places have been without milling since the 1920s.”
Grocery store flours may have been ground indeterminate weeks and months before they are purchased. “Pre-ground conventional whole-wheat flours taste different. This has to do with fresh milling. The natural oils in the wheat germ are what imbue it with flavor but they have a short shelf life. Seriously short. That’s true of nutrients as well.” Which is why most industrial flour removes the bran and germ, putting them back in later.
“To really capture the flavor you need to mill fresh — like coffee.”
Mr. Roberts no longer places Anson products in stores because they don’t refrigerate the stock. Instead he mills to order and overnights the shipment. Legume is among local restaurants that turn to a kitchen mill to capture flavor. Mr. Barber thinks home cooks should, too.
The next best option: buying as freshly milled as you can.
Weatherbury sets the freshness bar high. Mr. Tudor’s flours are ground on demand, with a monthly pre-order and pickup. There is little overage, because he doesn’t want to sell anything but the freshest product he can.
He calls his certified-organic flour “estate flour.” “We do everything here on our farm from planting the seed to bagging the flour. Every step of the process is under our control.”
Another consideration: “Most people don’t realize that nearly all conventional (non-organic) wheat is treated directly on the grain with pesticide as it is put into storage, sometimes multiple times before it is milled.” In spite of this, he says, “Almost all artisan bread I’m familiar with is baked with flour milled from conventional wheat.” He’s working to court artisan bakers here. Some have his flour in trials.
Mr. Tudor, at it now for six years, successfully grows an array of landrace and other traditional grains. They include:
• ‘Fredrick’ soft white winter wheat, for pastry flour
• ‘Maxine’ hard red winter wheat, for bread flour
• ‘Oberkulmer’ spelt from Switzerland
• ‘Wapsie Valley’ open-pollinated corn (meaning not hybridized and thus breeding true to itself).
• ‘Aroostook’ rye from Maine
Mr. Tudor expects this year to harvest a small amount of rare einkorn, a grain dating to the Fertile Crescent. He’s coaxed it along from a handful of withered seeds he found in Germany. ‘Red Fife,’ a Canadian hard wheat prized by bakers, is still a work in progress.
Predictably, the time machine taking our grain pioneers 75 years back to a sustainable but labor-intensive era has had its breakdowns and frustrations. Especially for those wooing larger customers.
Randy Metz of Goshen Valley Grain and Produce in Bentleyville, Washington County, knows the price of the learning curve. He had jumped through hoops to sell corn, rye and spelt to the picky, picky Mediterra Bakehouse. “The cornmeal was a long road — too coarse, too fine. Finally found the right mix after a few new sieves from Austria, only to run out of corn!”
This year, "Due to continuous rain, the rye harvest was awful." He can't supply Mediterra's large volume needs. But shoppers soon will find his rye flour at Whole Foods Market, where, to get his toe in the door, he invested in costly "tamper-proof" bagging. He's waiting to see about the corn harvest. "Much of it was washed out, but what is there looks good."
He says, “My farm is not organic, but ‘nutrient dense,’ a tradition my grandfather followed. It means no GMO, no herbicides or pesticides, natural composting, and considerable added mineral elements to balance the soil.” His produce has won national awards for its high brix (sugar) content, which confers great flavor to tomatoes and such, presumably to the grain kernels, as well.
A relative newcomer to the heritage-grain scene is Allen Matthews, a sixth-generation farmer, from of Matthews Family Farm in Eighty Four. The family enterprise has now transitioned to organic.
Mr. Matthews spends most of his time these days at Chatham University, where he designed and teaches the graduate food studies program’s sustainable ag courses, and established the program’s farm and garden component at the University’s Eden Hall campus. He has Abenaki open-pollinated corn sowed for corn meal at Eden Hall and the family farm.
He spent the decade prior at Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. There he saw the limping infrastructure development for local grain — along with progress that might inspire our own pioneers, who are sometimes frustrated that things seem so much farther along in places.
“Vermont has really remarkable bakers (now) who know how to use the (traditional) grains. Everybody uses local grain. People with stone-ground mills are just popping up.”
Chef Barber had this to say about the trajectory for a region like Pittsburgh, struggling to get local grains underway:
“I have sympathy for a lot of frustrated professional bakers. Their margins are razor-thin. The idea of playing with a recipe — fumbling your way to the correct hydration -- is preposterous. What we’re used to baking with is a mix of dozens of flours from different growers. It is not remotely like choosing a single wheat from a single farm. Places like The Bread Lab (www.thegraingathering.com/the-bread-lab-2) help you with all this.
“People want to support local grain, but the hang up is consistency — and the millers are so powerful in that process.
“With demand, the millers will come along. They’ll mix the flours for you. The infrastructure will appear. Look at microbrewers. With the explosion of microbreweries, maltsters are back. We haven’t had them in 100 years.” For non-booze-makers, maltsters make malt, which is wheat, barley or rye that’s been germinated and then dried. That process develops enzymes that change the grain’s starches into the sugar essential to making beer and whiskey.
Pittsburgh is rich in distillers and brewers with a growing appetite for grain.
Wigle Whiskey’s Meredith Grelli: “Local organic grain is one of our largest concerns as the distillery has grown.
“We source for 300 miles around. Last year we used all the organic rye that the region grew, and then we switched, as Pennsylvania distillers historically have done, to wheat and corn.”
Wigle bought all of Nigel Tudor’s rye, and his corn, too, to use in its bourbon. They also will purchase Mr. Matthews’ rye sowed at his family farm.
Mr. Tudor, through a Chatham student project, connected with the Church Brew Works about wheat for beer. Grad student Elisa Loeser, with the help of the brewery’s Matt Moniger, did a thesis on making local beer, using Weatherbury’s wheat. Ms. Loeser’s beer, “Eden,” will be brewed as part of Chatham’s fermentation course.
“Long term, we plan a local malt house,” Ms. Grelli says, “so that we can malt our own local grains. We’ll be able to eliminate that last non-local element, which is malted barley from Wisconsin.”
For the organic barley growers out there: Blue Hill’s grain farmer “has seen a five-fold increase in his business growth,” Mr. Barber says. “Barley sold to maltsters yields 30 percent more than for animal feed.”
On one hand, local grains are simply more plentiful and easier to find as growers improve output and distribution. On the other hand, the road to everyday consumption will be anything but simple.
For the infrastructure to come, stay tuned, Dan Barber suggests. It’s going to be “fascinating.” Meanwhile, get after those local-grain biscuits for summery shortcakes.
About 50 years ago, the grain culture changed in America: Small acreages of organic grain faded away, along with the local flour mills that served them. Everything flowed to the Midwest, where conglomerates bred grain for yield and super-consistency. This commodity product — blending as many as a dozen harvests and millings for consistency — could be shipped anywhere to bake the same bread in anybody's kitchen or bakery.
Most of the grains this region’s specialists are trying to make thrive are dubbed “heritage,” “heirloom” or “traditional.” They are correctly called “landrace.” Landrace means pre-industrial varieties that owners of small farms cultivated for flavor. The grains adapted to their locales, becoming so tasty and hardy that their seeds were passed down over generations and centuries.
They are often named after the people who grew them. For example, Red Fife hard red wheat is named after Canadian John Fife. Red Fife is still in trials at Weatherbury and Goshen Valley. Abenaki, planted by Allen Matthews, is a heritage flint corn named after a New England Algonquian tribe. The oldest varieties are called “ancients.” Weatherbury grows two: a kind of faro, called emmer, that fed the Roman soldiers, and the rare einkorn, which may have fed Biblical ones.
Clarion River Organics: Pittsburgh Public Market, the Penn’s Corner On-Line Farm Stand (pennscorner.com) and CRO farm stands (clarionriverorganics.com). Spelt, corn (for polenta). Honey-puffed corn and honey-puffed spelt, “amazing” spelt graham crackers. Products are milled — and puffed — by Monroe Stutzman in Mt. Hope, Ohio. CRO partner Nate Holmes says, “Clarion will revisit oats, emmer and red winter wheat as interest from chefs develops.”
Goshen Valley Grain and Produce: For now, go to the Bentleyville farm. If you buy Mediterra Bakehouse bread, you are already tasting grower/miller Randy Metz Jr.’s rye, corn and spelt in and on top of the loaves. Mr. Metz hopes to have products soon in Whole Foods Market. Meantime, you can arrange purchases by contacting him at goshenvalleygrains.com.
Weatherbury Farm: Products are available at the Penns Corner On-Line Farm Stand and at Clarion River’s store in the Pittsburgh Public Market. You may also request Nigel Tudor’s current product list at firstname.lastname@example.org to order by email. There are monthly pre-order dates for products to be ground for pickup at the farm. Available: whole-wheat and unbleached bread and pastry flour, unbleached and whole grain spelt flour, buckwheat flour, cornmeal, polenta. His rye will be ready for milling in mid-September. Coming: rolled oats, faro, emmer berries and spelt pasta. On the farm you’ll see the poetic side, “waving fields of grain,” along with the hubbub of kernels being captured, milled and bagged.
Refrigerate freshly milled grain products. Keep them several months in the refrigerator, a couple of years in the freezer. Or get a countertop mill and grind your own when you need it.
If you need all-purpose flour: Weatherbury doesn’t offer all-purpose, which is a blend of hard and soft flours that demands expensive equipment to handle large scale. Not to worry, says Mr. Tudor: “Stir together my pastry flour (soft wheat) and bread flour (hard wheat) when you need all-purpose. Proportions: 1/3 pastry flour and 2/3 bread flour.”
Pastry chef Kim Boyce’s “Good to the Grain, Baking with Whole Grain Flours” is the Bible for delicious and well-tested uses of unfamiliar whole-grain flours. You will find enticing recipes and terrific advice for a dozen different grains.
Cornmeal Rye Pancakes
Here’s a recipe “from the wonderful Marion Cunningham,” shared by baker and local grain supporter Bob Hoover. If you imagine rye flour to be sour like the bread, it isn’t. It’s sweet and malty. Perfect with maple syrup.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup rye flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups buttermilk
In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients well, stir in buttermilk and butter until blended. Let batter rest about 10 minutes while you heat a griddle or large skillet to medium hot. Coat cooking surface with butter or vegetable oil. Using 2 tablespoons batter for each pancake, drop on to surface and cook until bubbles break through the top of each pancake. Flip over and cook until pancakes are lightly browned.
Makes about a dozen 4-inch pancakes.
-- "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1987)
Drop Biscuits with Peaches and Cream
If you might think whole-wheat biscuits might be heavy, try these. They come together in 5 minutes, and are ready for peaches and all kinds of berries. They are pretty good the next day too.
Butter for the baking sheet
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (1/4 cup pastry flour and ½ cup bread flour, if you are blending Weatherbury’s)
1/4 cup plus 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup cold heavy cream
1½ half pounds peaches peeled and sliced, about 6 small peaches, or a pound of strawberries, hulled
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup cold heavy cream
1/3 cup creme fraiche, optional
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Rub a baking sheet lightly with butter.
In a large bowl, sift together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt, pouring back into the bowl any bits of grain or other ingredients that may remain in the sifter.
Pour in the cream and, using a fork or your hands, stir until the dough just begins to come together. The dough will be very shaggy; do not overmix.
Pile the dough into 6 mounds, leaving 4 inches between them. Use your hands to tuck in the rough pieces of the dough. Sprinkle the biscuits with 11/2 teaspoons of sugar.
Bake the biscuits for 34 to 40 minutes, rotating the sheet once halfway through, until they begin to color on the top.
While the biscuits are baking, place the berries in a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Allow them to macerate, uncovered at room temperature, for about 30 minutes, or until the biscuits are done. Meanwhile, whip the remaining cup of cream (combined with creme fraiche, if desired) into soft peaks that barely hold their shape, and chill.
When the biscuits are out of the oven, fill 6 bowls with cream and berries, then nestle a warm biscuit alongside.
-- “Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Flours” by Kim Boyce (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2010)
Weatherbury Farm’s Buttermilk Cornbread
People at the farm to pick up flour orders raved about this cornbread offered for sampling.
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup white sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup Weatherbury Farm cornmeal
1 cup Weatherbury Farm pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 8-inch square pan.
Melt butter in large skillet. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Quickly add eggs and beat until well blended. Combine buttermilk with baking soda and stir into mixture in pan. Stir in cornmeal, flour and salt until well blended and few lumps remain. Pour batter into the prepared pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
-- Nigel Tudor, Weatherbury Farm
Virginia Phillips: email@example.com.