This past July, my bakery colleagues, Hazim Tugun and Amy Emberling, and I traveled to Burlington, WA for the 8th annual Grain Gathering. We attended a number of workshops, listened to a lot of talented speakers, and ate a lot of great grain-centric foods—from barley orecchiette to buckwheat-chocolate croissants to sourdough doughnuts, as well as a number of whole grain versions of classics like focaccia, bagels, and shortbread cookies.
But our focus was on far more than enjoying great food. Part of my job as a marketer for the Bakehouse is to tell the story behind what we’re baking and what makes it so special, so I was looking forward to learning as much about grain varieties and stone milling as I could possibly absorb. We like to share everything there is to know about our food with customers and do so with integrity, so I knew gaining those first-hand experiences at the conference would allow me to do that. I found it eye-opening, heart-warming and mouthwatering all at the same time. I was also curious about what my colleagues had found most valuable, so upon our return to Ann Arbor, I asked Hazim and Amy about their highlights:
Why did you want to attend the Grain Gathering?
Hazim: I have been milling my own whole grain flours for the last few years, and I am super excited to do it with a bigger stone mill at our bakery very soon. Realizing the flavor, nutrition, ecological, and agro-social potential of milling my own whole grain flours was a big revelation to me; deep inside I think, that is what kept me going in this not-so-easy-craft given that I joined the baking profession relatively later in life than one normally would.
I attended the Grain Gathering because I knew I would be surrounded with like-minded, passionate bakers, farmers, millers, home-bakers, and other lovers of grains of all kinds with the goal of sharing our knowledge, making new or re-kindling old connections, and pushing the craft forward.
Amy: There are many many reasons I wanted to go to the Grain Gathering this year. The first is that we’re embarking on a new project to use more varied grains in our baking and to mill some of them ourselves in our new stone mill, and this gathering offered many educational sessions to help us with this project. I really enjoy meeting bakers from other parts of the country—our conversations are always inspiring and thought-provoking, and this meetup didn’t disappoint. We talked about everything from paternal leave to exit strategies to club wheat to buckwheat in Japan…It was super interesting.
On the most general level, I wanted to attend because I get energy and creative inspiration from travel practically anywhere. Going to the Skagit Valley, rich in agriculture, interesting community engagement, environmental care, and bakers was definitely satisfying. I even got to see another baking school. And I got to do all of this with two of my Bakehouse colleagues. We can now work together more effectively toward our vision.
What was the most important thing you learned?
Hazim: That the phrase “it takes a village” holds so true when it comes to creating a local grain economy: From the scientist/wheat breeder who is trying out wheat varieties with flavor, yield, environment and economics in mind to the farmer who is willing to grow such “out-of-place” grains despite the risk of failure at the mercy of mother nature. From the knowledgeable miller who is setting up shop locally to skillfully and freshly mill grains-less-traveled into more intact, less wasteful, and more flavorful and nutritious flours to the bakers and chefs willing to embrace the inherent variabilities of such flours and make wholesome breads, pastries, and noodles that scream flavor and terroir AND educate their guests along the way. From the home baker/brewer who is seeking out locally grown grains just like their vegetables, fruits, and meats for home-baking/brewing to the average consumer who is willing to taste and pay a fair price for a loaf of bread embodying such locality so that the farmer who grew the grain can pay his bills and grow more for another season.
Amy: The best sessions for me were about the anatomy of a mill and how to effectively maintain and run one. I never imagined that learning to “dress a stone” would be part of my life. I’m not a lover of equipment and needed a very low-level basic explanation of a stone mill to help me feel confident—I got it! Then we visited a medium-small community mill named Cairnspring Mill built to support farmers, millers, bakers, and general agricultural research it. The tour was so inspiring that I want us to do this in Michigan.
Who was your favorite speaker?
Hazim: My favorite was Dr. Stephen Jones, the Director of the Bread Lab. I thought he was very good at conveying what the Bread Lab and the Grain Gathering were about and the vision behind it all, with added humor. To me, the highlight was listening to him talk about wheat and other grain trials at five o’clock in the morning, strolling through the Bread Lab’s wheat fields together with 80 plus other passionate grain gatherers with the blood-moon in the background.
***Psst: Stay tuned for an upcoming event with Dr. Stephen Jones in the spring!***
What was the most valuable workshop?
Hazim: The Smorrebrod class was probably the best for me. As part of the class, a good baker friend through Instagram, Sophie Williams of Raven Breads, was presenting about the science of rye baking; and the science behind baking makes baking a lot more attractive for me, which is not surprising given my engineering background. She did such a good job of distilling down her knowledge and experience, even presenting functional graphs on rye(!). I learned about using a pH meter to better predict the level of fermentation needed for successful rye bakes. I am already using that information for the improvements that I am working on for our Volkornbrot bread.
So, what might the Bakehouse do as a result of the Grain Gathering?
We headed to the Grain Gathering already on a path to incorporating freshly milled whole grain flours in our bakes, whether breads or pastries. We came back seriously inspired to do more. Installing our own stone mill and using locally sourced grains, reflects our dedication to the vision embodied by the Grain Gathering and is just the beginning. Stay tuned!
By Sara Whipple, Zingerman’s Bakehouse