When We Try to Eat Local, Why Don’t We Think About Where Our Flour Comes From?
Today, people are focused more than ever on the origin of their foods. Maybe you subscribe to a CSA, maybe you try to shop at a weekly farmers market, maybe you have started paying closer attention to labels at the grocery store; in an effort to vote with our forks, many of us have begun to make a concerted effort to think about what we buy and where it comes from.
Yet in this formula for eating more locally, there’s one ingredient that often gets zero attention: flour.
In the gluten-free era, flour has gotten a bad reputation. But we’re also in a revival of artisan baking, home bakers, and professional bakers all with a newfound love of the craft of turning flour and water into something beautiful. On one hand, we have the vilification of all types of flour, and on the other, the embrace of bread. But regardless of where you stand on the issue of flour, there’s no denying that when it comes local foods, flour is rarely part of the discussion. Until now.
Flour, much like sugar and milk, has for long been a staple of the North American and European pantry. It is the base of many a recipe, and today it’s easy to think of flour as something that just comes in a bag, as opposed to what it starts out as: grain in a field.
However, thanks to the work of a variety of initiatives to reignite an interest in local grains, we are finally starting to talk about flour in a different way, one that focuses not only on where it’s grown, but one that addresses the nutritional qualities that are so often lost in the industrial form of flour that most of us are used to.
Let’s start with the basics of wheat flour.
Traditional white flour that we find at the supermarket is made to last; in order to sell, it has to have a shelf life. And to give it that shelf life, we have to zap it of essentially any nutritional value. When a whole grain is ground, oils are released, and in turn, a freshly ground flour will quickly go rancid. Today’s industrial milling process involves removing the the bran and the germ (the nutritious part of a grain) and separating out the endosperm. This part is then milled into the fine white powder that we know as all-purpose white flour, and while it has an extended shelf life, has a depleted its nutritional value. That’s why you find “enriched flour” – since all of the nutrients are stripped the first time around, they are added back in. A pretty backwards way of doing things.
Part of the local grain movement is to not only grow and source more local products, but to revive an interest in healthier and more diverse grains. “Heritage and other experimental wheat may sometimes have lower yields but higher market value in that it has flavor, character, more genetic biodiversity or even more to the point, that it would allow us to control our seed resources,” writes Nan Kohler on the Grist & Toll blog, Greater Los Angeles’ first urban mill in over 100 years.
While all-purpose flour has been the go-to baking ingredient, there are all kinds of types of flour that our industrial form of flour production has lead us to forget about; rye, spelt, corn, barley, teff, rice, buckwheat… the list goes on. And expanding our grain repertoire could be good for us. As Anna Roth wrote in SF Weekly in a story on locally grown and milled grains, “many in the field believe that whole, organically grown, stone-milled grains are better for the body than processed, hybridized, conventionally grown ones.”
Not only that, but the taste is completely different; compare a freshly ground grain, full of oils and nutrients, and potentially of heritage variety, with an industrially grown wheat that’s produced for quantity, not flavor, and then on top of it, milled to extend shelf life and you have two very different products. That’s what has made bakers excited; branch out from all-purpose flour and there is a whole world of new potential in terms of taste.
But creating a market for locally milled flour involves both milling, grain growing and an interest from customers; the three go hand in hand. This is of course nothing new, if anything, it’s simply a return to how things were done before. That’s not just good for independent farmers, that’s good for our soil, our health and the taste of the baked items on the table in front of us.
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