Most of us realize the value of cooking and eating using local produce — who'd rather eat a salad with ingredients imported from another state or country when we can eat a bowl of greens, vegetables and citrus grown nearby or even in our backyard? But when it comes to breads and baked goods, it's harder to wrap your head around just what this locavore idea means.
But recently there's been a movement toward growing grains closer to home than the wheat fields of Montana, say, or North Dakota or Canada. And not just from Utah or even Northern California but actually within a few hundred miles of Los Angeles.
The local grain movement has come oddly late to Los Angeles, but, like the craft beer scene, it's finally here, with new bakeries opening faster than ramen shops and Thai noodle places.
Small-batch bakers are bringing loaves to farmers markets, and new restaurants are opening not only with their own staff bakers but with $65,000 Italian four-deck bread ovens.
L.A. also has its own "urban flour mill," a retail flour store in Pasadena formed around a massive Osttiroler Getreidemühlen stone mill from Austria. There whole grains sourced from local growers are milled on the pretty pale-wood contraption, like a medieval stone mill reconstructed by Ikea furniture designers.
But the real future of the local grain movement in Los Angeles isn't inside the glorious bread ovens of Republique or even in the 2,500-pound Werner & Pfleiderer Matador deck oven that Clark Street Bread's Zack Hall recently fired up at Grand Central Market, the first bread bakery there in years. It's being planted now by an ad hoc guild of farmers in Kern and Santa Barbara counties, seeded (figuratively and literally) by a visionary Southern California expatriate.
The project is an ambitious one: to create a local grain hub, planting and eventually producing the grains that would supply the second largest city in America.
Glenn Roberts, who grew up in Southern California before founding South Carolina-based organic grain miller Anson Mills, says this was the way it once worked — the grains a region used would actually be grown nearby. "The California wheat hub existed up until the beginning of the 20th century."
Roberts has been working to reestablish heirloom grains that had once been grown across the country but were replaced by industrial grains. It's a movement that's attracted growing interest in the last few years, as more chefs, home cooks and industry leaders realize the importance of sustainable agriculture, the economic and ecological value of consuming food grown close to home, and the importance of those plants that we've been slowly replacing with genetically modified crops.
Building a Southern California grain hub has attracted the interest of area farmers, bakers and cooks, due in no small part to the efforts of Sonoko Sakai, a local Japanese American noodle maker and food writer who in 2011 formed her own grain project, Common Grains, to promote Japanese grain culture.
It was that buckwheat that brought Sakai to Roberts. "Glenn drew a picture of a mill. He said, 'Go find a farmer. I'll give you everything you need.'" Roberts sent Sakai 3 tons of seed and a combine.
Roberts told Sakai to find a farmer — she found five, and now they're growing much more than buckwheat.
In Tehachapi, where there's long been a tradition of farmers growing grains — there's wild rye along the freeway — Alex Weiser's family has been growing crops for almost 40 years. Jon Hammond's farm is next to Weiser Family Farms — his family has been farming there as far back as the 19th century. Together with Weiser and Hammond, Sakai recruited Nate Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms in Wasco and Santa Ynez, Curt Davenport of California Malting Co. and Tom Shepherd of Shepherd Farms in Santa Barbara County.
These farmers have formed a kind of new guild, experimenting with the seeds they got from Roberts, planting rows of different grains using low irrigation or dry-planting techniques — because all this is happening during the worst drought California has seen in 130 years.
They're in their second year of planting, using the Roman rye, Glenn, Sonora and Red Fife wheat that they grew last year to seed this year's crop.
That excitement has captivated local bakers and pastry chefs, some of whom, like Roxana Jullapat (previously of Cooks County) and Nicole Rucker (of Gjusta and Gjelina), have been making pilgrimages out to the Tehachapi wheat fields. Jullapat baked three loaves of bread from flour milled from Weiser's first harvest.
"If we're going to take so much care of where we get our food," says Jullapat, who makes a point of sourcing most of her ingredients from farmers markets, "then why are we buying our flour from [giant food service distributor] Sysco?"
And the flour from Weiser's first crop of Sonora wheat? "It has terroir," says Jullapat. "It tastes like California."