Celebrating Maine malts, wheat, and wood-baked bread

 A knead for local grains
By LAURA MCCANDLISH  |  July 18, 2013

HANDMADE BREAD With locally grown grain. / DEBBIE HIGHT

In An Everlasting Meal, chef Tamar Adler urges us to build whole meals around bread, the staff of life, as our ancestors once did. “Our lives don’t lean against it anymore,” she laments. “We’ve decided that bread is bad for us.” Indeed, much mass-produced bread out there is mostly devoid of nutrition. Bread-making, a process that used to take four days to achieve the digestive benefits of wild fermentation, now takes four hours and involves lots of commercial yeast, sugars, and other additives. In this age of first low-carb and then gluten-free fads, artisan bread became the enemy. But there’s finally a movement to return to the metaphorical and physical pleasures of breaking bread together. Baking bread, Michael Pollan says, represents true transubstantiation: miraculously arising from wheat (or barley or rye) first “harvested, threshed, milled, mixed, kneaded, shaped, baked, and then . . . the doughy lump of formless matter rises to become bread.”

This rising tide of the bread-obsessed converges on Skowhegan next week for the Maine Grain Alliance’s seventh annual Kneading Conference. Farmers, extension agents, millers, bakers, and brewers will gather for two days of workshops on topics including wood-fired production of bagels, rice cultivation in the harsh Northeast, the pleasures of peasant rye breads, yeasted crackers and flatbreads in a tandoor oven with Canadian food writer Naomi Duguid, and New England malting. If the $300 conference fee seems steep, there’s still a free Artisan Bread Fair at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds July 27. That day starts with a tour of the unlikely Somerset Grist Mill now stone-grinding flour on the site of a former jail.

The last mill closed in Skowhegan in the 1950s, but in the 1800s, Somerset County once produced enough wheat to feed over 100,000 people, says Amber Lambke, the force behind the Kneading Conference and the new mill. There’s a vibrant food hub developing in the struggling Kennebec River mill town. Dairy farmer and Skowhegan Farmers’ Market manager Sarah Smith brought food-stamp incentives to the market and partnered with family doctors to write subsidized fruit and vegetable prescriptions. Smith also spearheads The PickUp, a multi-farm CSA program and café on the site of the former jail. There’s also Pasta Fresca from Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer, made of wheat from the Somerset Grist Mill, their farm-fresh eggs and produce, and local ricotta.

A regional grain economy has slowly arisen, “which was really not much more than a hopeful idea” when the Kneading Conference began in 2007, says organizer Wendy Hebb. It even spawned a sister Kneading Conference West in Washington state each September, given the strong revival of grain cultivation there. Here, researchers from Maine and Vermont collaborate on a Northern New England Local Bread Wheat effort. They’re working with veteran large-scale farmers like Aroostook County’s Tate McPherson of Maine Seed Company reviving the state’s dormant seed grain industry (soybeans, peas, canola, oats, barley, wheat, and rye).

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  Topics: Food Features , Kneading Conference
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