“Why Whole Grain is Important” and Other Lessons from the Los Angeles Bread Festival

LA's Bread Festival  | Foodable WebTV Network

LA's Bread Festival | Foodable WebTV Network

Following close on the heels of the farm-to-table movement, in which chefs and diners alike have begun taking a much more involved approach in both ingredient sourcing and food preparation, Los Angeles has recently been witness to the emergence of a similar movement within the city’s top restaurants and bakeries - craft bread. 

This emerging craft bread movement sees the same focus on artisanal and handcrafted ingredients extend into the baking arena as well as a focus on working with local growers and farms that work with heritage wheat.

Earlier this month, at the first Los Angeles Bread Festival, a number of the city’s finest small lot bakers, grain growers and stone millers gathered to discuss the trends they’ve witnessed in LA’s burgeoning craft bread movement as well as some of the challenges they’ve faced in getting the bread scene to where it is now.

The Truth About Whole Grain

The idea of whole grain bread is not a very complicated one to understand, yet unfortunately many consumers are being led astray by commercial bakeries seeking to capitalize on the assumption of quality and health benefits that come with this label. Many would be surprised to find that their so called whole grain loaves are in fact nothing more than processed, refined flour that has then been reassembled from a variety of wheat sources. The “whole wheat” is later put back into the finished product to add the very nutritional aspect that has since been stripped back into the bread – a Franken-bread of sorts. 

Little attention is paid to the wheat source, the style of milling, or even the refining process that these commercial breads go through.  Instead, due to severe lack of regulations, explains urban miller Nan Kohler, there is no system currently established to distinguish between actual whole grain, whole berry, whole milled bread like she produces at her urban flour mill Grist & Toil. As such, these commercial products are free to flaunt their whole grain label, as well as the nutritional benefits that come with it. 

The fact remains, however, that these processed, re-assembled breads are the furthest thing from the handcrafted, artisanal bread of local, small lot bakers, and it is these types of breads that LA’s craft bread movement seeks to highlight.     

At her own urban flour mill, Grist & Toll, Kohler seeks to produce flour of integrity. She refuses to temper or soak the grains prior to milling and stone grinds whole wheat, whole berry in order to preserve both the nutrients and flavor of the wheat. Furthermore, Kohler sources her grain directly from small, local farmers who farm sustainably in order to control the quality of ingredients she receives.

This idea of growing grain locally and sustainably radically differs from the commercial grain growing practices of the past, Kohler explains.  

“Yet what is available on grocery store shelves is dictated to us,” she furthered. “Everything has a similar taste, but as a miller, I wanted more diversity, more complexity and more of a choice in flavors.”

Furthermore, in commercial milling, most flour is not identity preserved and is instead blended into multiple lots. As such, bakers who work with this commercial flour are not presented with any information on the flour’s variety or where it was sourced from. 

John Davis of LA’s famed La Brea bakery explains that “We want consumers to know where their food comes from, but you don’t always see that with the bread industry. It seems to be a bit of a disconnect.”

Artisanal Bread  | Foodable WebTV Network

Artisanal Bread | Foodable WebTV Network

Local baker Zach Hall of Clark Street Bread has also taken similar steps at his own bakery to work with single origin flour and sustainably grown wheat. 

“Every grain has its own aroma and flavor component,” Hall explains. “I wanted more personality in my own bread than what was available commercially.”

Yet despite this growing emphasis amongst bakers and restaurants to work with sustainably farmed, whole grain bread, it is up to consumers whether this movement will catch on.

“I would love to see the same enthusiasm for chocolate emerge for single origin flour,” says Clemence Gosset of the Gourmandise School. “No one bats an eyelash about spending $6 for a couple ounces of single origin chocolate.”

Restoring Heritage Grains to their Rightful Place

In addition to restoring the role of the local, sustainable wheat farmers, many bakers and grain growers are now also seeking to restore the use of California’s heritage grains in craft baking. The great privilege of living in California means that many of Los Angeles’ bakers and millers have access to an abundance of locally grown wheat, many of which has been grown in the state for hundreds of years, so called heritage grains. 

“The state is known as “The Golden State” for a reason,” explains local grain grower Alex Wiesler. “It was precisely for our golden fields of wheat.”

Furthermore, in addition to the incredibly high fertility of California’s soils, the state is also one of the few places where plantings are able to be done in both the fall and spring while the rest of the country is limited to only winter plantings. 

Yet despite the wealth of local, heritage grains available, many farmers are opting to plant other “cash crops” that can make them the most money for their efforts. As heritage grains are much more low yielding than other varieties of wheat, even those farmers that do opt to plant wheat will generally choose the higher yielding options.    

At his own farm, Wiesler works with a number of crops but has found that when he planted the land to grain, he was actually improving the soil, allowing the ground to rest. As such, Wiesler is able to use wheat in his crop rotations and maintain his holistic approach to farming.

In addition, Wiesler is now in his second year working with heritage grains, working to bring varieties like Sonora and Red Fife back to prominence. 

Wheat Fields

Santa Barbara wineries Piedrasassi and Pence Ranch, both with winemaker Sashi Moorman at the helm, have also been a major player in restoring heritage grains in California. Identifying Red Fife as a local, Santa Barbara variety, Moorman and his wife Melissa Sorongon opened the New Vineland bakery inside their tasting room where they bake up a number of heritage loaves just as delicious as their elegant wines. 

At Pence Ranch, where Moorman also makes wine, owner Blair Pence sought to express the true terroir of his property not just through wine, but through a number of other crops. Together with Moorman, the duo have planted a number of heritage grains that they also bake into fresh loaves offered to visitors of the winery. 

While a number of bakers and grain growers will admit that heritage grains are far more intriguing and delicious than many of the commercial wheat grains, the fact remains that planting the crop is an incredibly labor intensive, costly endeavor. 

As heritage wheat is generally far lower yielding than commercial, the economics alone often keep many smaller farmers from working with the varieties. Furthermore, there is little infrastructure for those farmers who seek to work with heritage wheat. 

“The more interest we can get, the more facilities can start to open, making it cheaper and easier for small growers to process their wheat who are, as of now, lacking storage, cleaning and bagging facilities,” says Kohler. “The high costs to process the wheat start mounting up for these smaller growers.”

The high cost of land and irrigation are also affecting many of these small growers and with the recent California drought, many have turned to cash crops in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy. 

Yet despite the incredible odds, these leaders in California’s craft bread culture are soldiering on with their commitment to working with locally sourced, whole wheat, heritage grains.   

“We still are waiting for a (wheat) discovery that can satisfy both high yields for farmers, but satisfy our own palates,” explains Kohler. 

But until then, they look to the future of where Los Angeles’ craft bread scene can go. 

“Trends start very broad, but now I want to start getting into the traits of the specific varieties of wheat. What are the results of blending? What are the best regions for growing each variety?” says Davis. “It’s a fun future with lots of possibilities for discovery. I can’t wait to start experimenting.”