Give Us This Day Our Daily GrindNov 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
The siren aromas of fresh-baked bread, the appeal of a crusty, golden loaf, the anticipation of its tasty crunch, and melt-in-your-mouth insides are an enthusiastic “welcome home!” for the senses well before the just-from-the-oven loaf is broken and slathered with butter. During these plague years, home bread-baking rose in popularity faster than proof dough, causing local millers to work harder than ever.
The history of bread is the story of human society. When farmers began to cultivate cereal grains, people soon saw the need to cooperate on a larger scale, progressing from tribal groups of hunters to small villages where families could share bake ovens, grinding stones, and the responsibilities of keeping the community nourished.
With the passing of centuries and growth of population, as survival skills became more specialized, mills were built to grind more grain faster. Power supplied by water or animals turned heavy stones with grain sandwiched between them until friction and gravity pulverized the seeds of wheat, rye, barley, corn, and more into smaller bits that could be fermented with yeast and cooked to become the basis of nutritious meals. When Europeans settled in what would become America, every town and hamlet had at least one mill.
Fast forward to the agribusiness model of the mid-twentieth century when bread whose ingredients were grown and processed far from its end consumers was more likely to spring from a plastic bag bought in the supermarket than from a home oven—often containing as many synthetic ingredients as its wrapper. Mills became mega-enterprises while smaller local ones were abandoned and mostly disappeared—until many in the generation raised on spongy white bread started to question the integrity of what they were eating.
In Trumansburg, organic grain farmer Thor Oechsner joined forces with Greg Russo and Neal Johnston to create Farmer Ground Flour in 2009. Working with eight other local organic farmers, they produce stone-ground wheat, rye, spelt, corn, and einkorn—this last is a precursor to modern wheat and the first seed planted by farmers 12,000 years ago, used in the first bread baked by humans.
Greg says starting the mill was an exercise in historical research. “You could make a great whole wheat flour on a steel mill,” he admits, though he prefers to mill with granite. The friction between grain and grinder creates heat, which could potentially damage the grains’ nutritional value. The thermal mass of mill stones theoretically allows wheat to be milled at a lower temperature, preserving its integrity.
Interestingly, mills like Farmer Ground are called “micro” despite producing up to 60,000 pounds of flour each week.
A miller needs a larger skill set than the ability to send grain into the mill via a hopper and collect it when it’s turned into flour. Greg and Neal had to master the art of stone dressing for the arduous task of renewing the surface on the grinding stones, a chore needing to be done about once a month. “The real work is when we pull stones into a special room with a hoist, sharpen, and realign them,” he says. “If you think about how fine flour is, you want the stones to be as close together as possible. The alignment is the craft and the art.” For Greg, learning how to do this meant reading instructional manuals from the seventeenth century.
Farmer Ground flour is sold extensively throughout the northeast, including at Wegman’s and in health food stores. Find sources for their flour at farmergroundflour.com.
Some of it travels only a mile down the road to Wide Awake Bakery in Trumansburg (wideawakebakery.com), a business owned by Oechsner, Stefan Sender, and Liz Brown. Wide Awake began as Farmer Ground produced their first flour, in the same spirit of celebrating locally grown food in the community.
“It makes beautiful bread—a lot of people think it’s transcendent,” Stefan says about using Farmer Ground Flour. “The baking performance is terrific. It requires a little more attention and a careful, tender hand—but we swear by it!”
Taking bread another step back in time, Essential Eating, a milling company whose home office is in Waverly, is the only miller of sprouted grains in the northeast, according to spokesperson Kate Collins. Kate says our ancestors ate sprouted grains because sprouting happened naturally while the harvested bundles of grain waited in fields to be collected.
In 2000, Essential Eating’s founder, Janie Quinn, set up the business after being sick, substituting sprouted flour for the conventional stuff and becoming convinced it restored her health. Quinn is the author of Essential Eating Sprouted Baking: With Whole Grain Flours that Digest as Vegetables and two other cookbooks.
The milling process is proprietary and happens at several undisclosed locations in Pennsylvania, Kate says. Because industrial milling means storing vast amounts of grain in temperature-controlled silos and sprouting is considered such a potential disaster, technology was developed to detect when it happened and grain “went bad.” Today, Essential Eating’s millers use that same tech to know when their grains are ready to mill.
“I think in the future all grains we consume will be sprouted,” Kate predicts. “A dried whole grain has the nutrients locked in; but when the sprout cracks the shell, converting it from a starch to a vegetable, the nutrients become bio-available.” The resulting flour is naturally sweeter, with a slightly nutty aroma. “We have bakers who call and ask, ‘What did you put in the flour? It tastes so amazing!’”
Kate uses her flour to make bread in a bread machine. Because the flour is sold in bulk to bakers and distributors like Dutch Valley Food Distributors and Shiloh Farms/Garden Spot Foods who re-package it for sale in consumer quantities, Essential Eating’s considerable output is not found under their label. Learn how to find it at essentialeating.com.