Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On Flavor

The idea for the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project (NCOBFP), the grant-funded project that led to the launch of Carolina Ground, L3C, came in the wake of the 2008 spike in the price of wheat, where at its worst, the cost of the baker’s most essential ingredient rose as much as 130%. What was later termed the Wheat Crisis was, at the time, a rude awakening for the baker who was hit with a flour price that far exceeded what could be passed along to the consumer for a loaf of bread. It became all too clear that the disconnect between the baker and farmer was unsustainable and that closing the gap between the farmer and baker was the necessary next step in (re)building a sustainable food system in the Carolinas. And so, centered upon the growing consumer demand for local (a demand that has proven itself recession-proof) we plowed ahead and NCOBFP was set in motion with funding from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund and Santa Fe Tobacco. 

Fast forward five years-- Carolina Ground is milling Carolina grown bread wheat, pastry wheat, and rye-- connecting the farmer with the baker. And we are part of a growing movement.  But local grain to flour is different from a local tomato when it comes to appealing to the masses, as a recent article in Slate entitled, Going Against the Grain states, “Local produce has found a market beyond hard-core environmentalists because of its taste...whether rice or wheat comes from across the ocean or across the road has little impact on its flavor.”

It’s an interesting point, and there is some truth to it, but there’s more of the story to tell.

Hand-in-hand with this burgeoning regional grain movement has been the resurgence of stone milling. Rewind 100+ years and one would have seen our county’s landscape dotted with stone-burr gristmills. For thousands of years grain was processed into flour between stones, up until the late 1800s when, as Thom Leonard, baker and author of The Bread Book explains, “the stone age[ ]at last ceded to the age of steel.” The advancement of milling technology-- from stone-burr gristmill to roller mill-- a technology which employs steel rollers that strip away and separate the three components of the wheat berry-- germ, bran, and endosperm--  not only brought speed and efficiency to the processing of grain to flour but it made for a shelf stable product, as it is the oils contained within the germ that causes rancidity in flour, and in the roller milled product, the germ is completely removed; hence, the centralization of the milling and growing of wheat. But what was also removed with this method of milling was FLAVOR. 

The very fact that we are local enables us to process our grain to flour in a method that preserves the nutrients and emphasizes the flavor of the wheat. Because we are local, we have little concern with shelf life. We stone grind our flour and we embrace the idea that a local loaf of bread can carry the flavor of our region. 

from the ground up, 
jennifer lapidus

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

that simple loaf of bread?

Wheat harvest is upon us and in this moment-- pre harvest-- if feels as if the dice are suspended in the air and we-- the farmer, miller, and baker-- are simply waiting for them to land. 

What do we millers and bakers hope for? Quality wheat with good baking performance! 

But what quality characteristics equate to good baking performance and how is the miller to determine if a lot of wheat deems worthy of purchasing from a farmer?

To begin with, on the farmer’s end-- beyond yield-- the first measure of his/or her grain is test weight. Test weight is a good overall indicator to both farmer and miller as to the quality of the wheat, as it measures the density-- or how filled out the grain kernel is. It also may indicate-- if low test weight is detected-- the presence of diseased kernels. Grain is accounted for in bushels, which is a volume measurement, and a bushel of wheat is about 60 lbs (though this may vary a bit with the variety). In general, 56 lb. test weight of unclean grain is the minimum acceptable test weight for a miller. Low test weight can be caused by poor growing conditions, disease, or sprout damage. Cleaning grain, especially running it over a gravity table, can increase test weight by vetting damaged and diseased kernels.

The next test a farmer’s grain must undergo is testing for mycotoxin deoxinivalenol (DON), also known as vomitoxin. DON (or vomitoxin) is caused by the Fusarium fungus commonly known as head blight. Cool wet weather around flowering time can threaten even an extraordinary stand of wheat. High levels of vomitoxin can be visibly detected in a field by a pink hue over the crop. When ingested, high levels can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans and livestock. The FDA has set a maximum DON guideline of 1ppm for human consumption, but to many a miller the acceptable threshold for organic human food grains is essentially zero. On the farm end, if Fusarium is identified, the grower can reduce levels in a crop by turning the air up on his or/her combine at harvest to blow out the lighter, diseased kernels. Post harvest, the grain should be cleaned well, especially run over a gravity table. Good crop rotations and seeking resistant varieties of wheat can also help alleviate future disease pressure. And of course, hopes and prayers for good weather never hurt.

Yet another test wheat is subjected to if said crop hopes to land with a miller (and into a loaf of bread) is falling numbers. A falling numbers test determines the level of enzymatic activity in a lot of grain, and in doing so indicates whether there has been (pre harvest) sprout damage to the crop. Heavy sprout damage can be extremely problematic to the baker, as flour made with this grain will have reduced mixing strength, produce sticky dough, and affect a loaf’s volume and shelf life. A small amount of heavily sprouted grain-- as low as 5%-- mixed with a lot of sound grain may deem the whole lot unacceptable for a baker. 
On the farm end, sprout damage becomes a threat with the onset of wet weather around harvest. Certain varieties of wheat are more susceptible than others, with white wheats being more susceptible than red wheats. 
The falling numbers test measures the number of seconds a plunger takes to fall through a slurry of flour. The less viscous the slurry, the greater the enzymatic activity (the enzyme-- alpha-amylase-- is starch degrading) and the quicker the plunger will fall. (High enzymatic activity is the indicator of the sprouting process, btw.) The falling number is the number of seconds the plunger takes to fall. Falling numbers of 300 and above are deemed sound wheat. 200 and below are unacceptable for a mill.  Somewhere in the range of 250 to 300 are usually the minimums set by flour mills. 

And still more tests! The baker needs quality protein. Gliadins and glutenins are the gluten-forming proteins in wheat that enable the baker to make a leavened, lofty, loaf of bread. These proteins provide the extensibility and elasticity to dough. While testing for protein in wheat does provide a measurement of wheat’s quality, it is still quite possible to have a high protein number and yet poor quality wheat or the other way around-- a low pro number with high quality performance. The protein number is somewhat one dimensional and so without a bake test and/or the use of a farinograph (lab equipment which measures extensibility, elasticity, and water absorption of dough) it is difficult to fully determine the quality of wheat. Although diverse crop rotations aimed at building soil fertility, well timed field application of nutrients, seed variety choice, and good weather all factor in when it comes to producing a quality crop of wheat.

And lest we forget the quality of the baker. From the miller's end, we can convey part of the story--what we received from the grower (the falling numbers, protein, test weight, hardness), the variety that was planted, who grew it and where-- and how and when it was milled. But we leave it to the baker to engage with their flour. Each baker will approach his or her dough differently-- fermentation times vary as do mix times, leavenings, and ovens. The baker too will interact with the weather-- ambient humidity, heat, cold -- and with each season, a new crop. 

And so that simple loaf of bread-- of wheat, water, and sea salt; sun, soil, and rain-- is not so simple after all. 

from the ground up,
jennifer lapidus 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Has it really been this long since my last post....

Has it really been close to 6 months since my last post?? Ugh. Well, it's been fairly busy on this end-- making flour, expanding our markets, building our website (check us out at carolinaground.com), continuing our work to rebuild the local food system for grains and other crops in rotation...  Okay, after that last statement I  feel a little justified for this lapse in time, although I am determined to post more often....

We just received another truckload of wheat from grower Billy Carter of Eagle Springs, NC. Billy’s grain bin is now empty, with a nice window of time to get thoroughly cleaned out, and remain grain free until harvest, which is a little more than a month away. This is good for Billy and his grain, as it is one part of a larger strategy the organic grower hopes to employ in addressing the ever present threat of granary weevils. Because the organic grower cannot simply spray down his (or her) grain and bin with Storicide or similar insecticide, the approach must be to avoid infestation through vigilance in harvest, cleaning, and handling of grain, as well as a nice dose of food-grade diatomaceous earth mixed in with the grain (one pound per ton of grain).

In an ideal world, all our Carolina organic grain growers will have sold all of their grain by March or early April and all the bins would sit empty. In this ideal world, we would be importing very little if not zero grain from the midwest. All of our breads, pastries, miso, beer and spirits would be made from our growers’ grain. The threat of weevils would be reduced because grain would be in constant flow (not still sitting in the bin until right before the next harvest.)

Although we have not yet achieved that ideal scenario, we’re thrilled to have received another truckload of wheat from Billy, and to be the reason his bin is empty. Our bakers love the flour made from the grain grown on his fields.  And we love our bakers and our growers.

Here’s to kneading local!

from the ground up,
Jennifer Lapidus