(This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
The notion of farm-to-table is an established standard in many parts of the United States and is becoming more popular by the day. For years, dessert plates and bakery cases have showcased fresh and seasonal flavors of local fruit, dairy and honey. But many chefs are now asking, why stop there? What is often an overlooked pantry staple is now becoming the new focus: freshly milled flour.
Flavor is ultimately what drove Blair Marvin of Elmore Mountain Bread in Vermont to explore local, fresh flours. For years her bakery had been focusing on sourdough fermentation as the primary flavor source for their bread doughs, but an overnight delivery of freshly milled flours from a friend in North Carolina changed her perspective. “It was just like it was a revelation. Basically, it blew our minds,” she recalls. The aromas and flavors of the flours themselves could then be enhanced by their perfected fermentation techniques, creating superior products with nuanced flavor profiles instead of working with what she referred to as the “blank canvas” of mass-produced flours. She began her journey with husband Andrew Heyn to develop their own stone-ground mill, source grain from local area farmers and change their product offerings. Some of her most popular existing breads slowly got an upgrade so as not to confuse the consistent consumer base, and some breads were developed entirely based on the new flavor profiles she discovered from local farmers. A sense of terroir develops; bread now has a taste of the land where it is created.
The idea of stone milled flours easily conjures up the vision of hearty, earthy breads, but delicate pastries are now also being elevated. Freshly milled flours can be sifted to a create a finer texture, which then can be used for a variety of applications. Ms. Marvin recollects the 100% freshly milled whole grain croissants at Blue Hill at Stone Barns that gave her goosebumps. Amber Lambke, president and co-founder of Maine Grains, points to such artisan bakeries as Smoke Signals in Kentucky and A&J King in Massachusetts, which are paving the way in pies and pastry. Being able to pause and smell the aroma of the flours as they are being incorporated into doughs or to simplify recipes to allow the flour flavor profiles to shine were almost forgotten concepts until this new wave of bakers. Ms. Lambke herself also uses the pastry flour her company produces to create more delicate applications, her favorite also being pie. The handheld breakfast pastry versions, featuring local seasonal fruits such as blueberry and apple, are a favorite at the café on-site at her mill.
Milling fresh flour goes hand-in-hand with the resurgence of not only regional types of wheat, but entirely different grains as well. The gristmill at Maine Grains has an ever-expanding product line for their New England and Mid-Atlantic customers that includes spelt, buckwheat and rye. They are also starting to experiment with byproducts of other local industries. They hope to release dehydrated apple flour and apple crackle soon, both byproducts of the local cider industry. At Button & Co Bagels in North Carolina, they use the spent grain from a local brewery to make their “Asheville Whoopie Pie” – a new twist on an oatmeal cream pie that uses toasted and ground spent grain to create what owner Katie Button calls a “unique richer flavor” for the dessert.
Transparency, biodiversity, sustainability: these aren’t just buzz words in the industry. Knowing where your product comes from is not only welcome but expected these days. Elmore Mountain Bread happily labels their products with the farm names listed on each bag. Both Elmore and Maine Grains look to sustain their local economies by establishing fair rates with their suppliers and customers, so everyone in the supply chain can make money and grow their businesses. That in turn allows local farms to experiment with new grains, because they have the capital to do so. Byproducts from both mills help support a circular, sustainable local economy. Husks and broken kernels turn into livestock feed and compost. Maine Grains touts their mission to be a zero-waste facility, so even the flour dust on the machines is collected and supplied to a local pig farm.
Ms. Marvin’s foray into creating her own mill with her husband was so successful that they formed a separate company called New American Stone Mills, which produces mills ranging from 26” to 48” stones for interested bakeries to purchase. They build all their own mills onsite in Vermont and offer specialized customer service to ensure the product is right for each bakery regardless of location. And if investing in a larger mill isn’t feasible, Mockmill offers countertop options and mixer attachments, which can produce up to 25 pounds of flour an hour. Paul Lebeau of Mockmill notes that because the flour production is instantaneous, a chef can mill flour right before using it. The machines have flexibility in the types of flour they can mill as well, echoing the sentiment that wheat is no longer the only option. In many pastries, you don’t need what he referred to as “functional gluten,” so adding “even beans, peas, lentils, all these things to our pastries, we get something that has a much more interesting flavor profile and a true nutritional profile.” Since their mills are compact and versatile, chefs can experiment with small quantities of new products and avoid waste, while also not having to worry about the space to house the mill itself.
Ms. Marvin dislikes the term “trend” and prefers the word “movement” to describe the growing interest in what they are doing in the industry. Mr. Lebeau agrees, adding, “today’s consumer is waking up to the beautiful complexity that grains bring to food.” And indeed, based on how quickly these businesses are growing and the response in the market, this isn’t just a trend. It’s the future.