Monday, June 8, 2009

Local Grain on the Brain

In the never-ending search for great local food, we often overlook some of our most staple food products. Fruits and vegetables from local farms and neighborhoods are always available, and there are incredible options for local meats, dairy and eggs. But what about bread?

The Bay Area has no shortage of small, local bakeries producing outstanding breads with signature Bay Area flavor. But the truth is, local bread is nearly impossible to get. The trouble is in the grain. Where do these bakeries get their flour? Likewise, when you go to the market, what are your options for flour? From what fields did the grains come from? The United States has a history of subsidizing and depending on its Midwest breadbasket for much of its grain, and today most bread in California is produced using ingredients from the heartland, or even abroad.

Have you noticed your bread prices going up this year? That is partially due to the increased volatility of the global commodity markets, particularly the rising cost of grain that was the result of increased conversion of land globally to agrofuel production and a recent drought in grain-growing regions around the world that wiped out much of the global supply.

Luckily, there are exciting alternatives to the dependence on non-local markets for grain. On the East Coast there is a growing movement of farmers and bakers attempting to bring back the use of local grain varieties. A recent article on explains how stakeholders in and around Asheville, NC are attempting to recover and bring to market local grain varieties. They have created the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project to organize their efforts. They in the beginning stages of building a network of farmers, millers and bakers that will facilitate the return of local grain economies that disappeared more than one hundred years ago.

What is happening in Asheville is indicative of local-food trends we’ve seen in recent years. And as bakers begin looking for alternatives to flour priced at the mercy of a volatile global market, maybe we will see more California grain in our breads in the coming years.

For full disclosure, David Bauer, owner of Farm & Sparrow, who is profiled in the article, is one of my oldest and closest friends. But this is not just a shameless plug. He is doing a number of amazing things in his brick-oven bakery, including milling his own grain (which will soon come from a local farm) and using some surprising ingredients, including heirloom white corn. His bread is delicious, and if you are ever in the area, seek his bread out!

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