Wednesday, March 11, 2009

what happened to the regional mill?

Regional wheat initiatives have sprung up all over the United States and beyond. Rising fuel costs, as well as the volatile price, availability, and quality of wheat have bakers thinking hard about this fundamental ingredient. Total reliance on the Midwest for wheat carries with it an inherent flaw in terms of regional food security. Historically, local mills and regional grain growing was the norm. Wheat had been grown throughout the United States, arriving in North America as early as the 1500s, according to Monica Spiller of Whole Grain Connections, a non-profit committed to the rebuilding of our local grain economies through research and propagation of heritage grain seed. Wheat first arrived in Mexico via explorers from Portugal and then, along the Eastern seaboard in the 1600s, with settlers from Western Europe; next, it was California by the late 1700s with settlers from Spain; and finally, in the 1870s, into the Great Plains and all the way up to Canada, wheat found its way, via settlers from Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. In Spiller’s Local Organic Landrace Wheat Programs: Position Paper, she explains wheat’s arrival into the different regions of North America, with each wheat type reasonably well matched to the corresponding climate. The Great Plain States would become the Modern Breadbasket due to the high volume of wheat produced on its large swaths of land, which, in turn, created the incentive to advance milling technology, thus the transformation of milling technology from stone milling to roller milling. According to Spiller, the greatest economic success due to America wheat came to the Plains states by about 1880…This huge success in the Plains had a difficult beginning because the hard red wheat type that grew there was unlike the familiar softer white wheat varieties from the West, and the East, or the softer red wheat varieties from the East. All wheat was milled with stones, and although there was some attempt to sift out the bran and germ to produce refined endosperm flour, the flour was usually whole grain even after sifting, in the sense that all the parts of the original grain where still present. The sifting process was to remove larger particles, which meant in practice that a portion of the bran was removed, but the germ was still present, having spread into the endosperm flour.... The same stone milling process produced unfamiliar whole grain flour from [the] hard red wheat [of the Great Plains]. Even after sifting, the brittle and finely divided hard red wheat bran remained in the flour; in particular it produced darker colored bread at a time when the ideal for bread was a light color….The sheer volume of wheat being produced, suddenly, throughout the Plains generated an extremely rapid development of a milling process to remove the dark red bran, as well as the germ from the hard red wheat grain. The new milling method was roller milling, using metal rolls grooved especially to slice away the germ and peel off the bran from grain that had first been moisturized to ease the process. The resultant refined endosperm flour was instantly popular; the bread was whiter than people ever experienced and had an appealing texture. In retrospect, it appears that stone mills were abandoned almost instantly in 1880 all over the Western world, in favor of the new roller mills.
Thom Leonard, author of The Bread Book refers to the “stone age” of milling that lasted for thousands of years, until the late 1800s when “the stone age has at last ceded to the age of steel.”
The rest of the United States could not compete with the sheer volume being produced in the Great Plains, and the softer varieties of wheat grown in the East and West did not mill as well with the new roller mill technology. Roller milling not only added speed and efficiency to the milling process but it made for a shelf stable product, as it is the oils contained within the germ that cause rancidity in flour, and in the roller milled product, the germ is completely removed; hence, the centralization of the milling and growing of wheat. There is more to this story, but this is a brief synopsis of how we got to where we are today, with our reliance upon the Great Plains to grow our wheat.
Next post: the burgeoning regional wheat initiatives

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