Thursday, May 27, 2010

Naked Wheat - The story behind the sheath.

~carrie holt
What's a person to do― trying to eat locally, but in love with bread? When I started eating locally a few years ago, I felt resigned to give up this important staple in my diet. An unfortunate loss indeed; kicking a 34-year bread habit is not an easy task. The day Karen found wheat grown here on Vancouver Island was a momentous day in both our lives. Ecstatically, I went looking for the wheat and figuring out how to turn it into a loaf of bread. The answers turned out to be more complicated than I had originally thought. It turns out that all grains of wheat are not equal. In fact, several varieties of wheat are now grown here, including Red Fife, a heritage variety that has grown widely across Canada in the late 1800's and numerous varieties of modern hard red and white spring wheats, as well as rye. All make fine loaves of bread because of their relatively high protein contents, but their textures will differ. Farmer Tom Henry at Sea Bluff Wheat Farm in Metchosin produces hard red spring wheat in a fairly large-scale practice, supplying grains to bakeries throughout the region (young wheat shown below).

On the other end of the spectrum, the Island Grains, Vancouver Island's first grain CSA (community supported agriculture) in Duncan is a grass-roots group that engages the community in small-scale farming practices of heritage and other varieties of grains and oats. While you need to be a member of the grain CSA to get their wheat, Tom's is available at his farm as kernels (before milling) at the farm, or as grains or milled wheat at True Grain Bakery in Cowichan Bay.


Fresh milled wheat has a rich, almost nutty feeling and taste, which I quickly fell in love with. Without additional processing steps commonly used by commercial companies (e.g., Robin Hood), the natural oils in wheat germ can become rancid and so the wheat should be consumed relatively soon after milling. However, it can be stored in the fridge or freezer to extend shelf life (lasting several months). Feeling satiated with bread and proud of my new findings, I starting spreading the word about this freshly milled wheat. However, I was humbled after meeting my boyfriend's grandmother, Nicé, a wheat miller for many decades who has been making multi-grain bread for several generations of her family. I had (and still have) much to learn! Since then I have become the proud owner of my own electric grain mill. Although it lacks the aesthetic appeal of Karen's hand-cranked one, it takes only seconds to make flour for several loaves. Perhaps a small step away from the slow foods movement, but, in my case, a step towards practicality.

I have recently experimented with slow rise breads that use less commercial yeast than regular bread and have a longer rising time to allow the yeast to more thoroughly break down the gluten. These breads have a wonderful spongy texture and rich flavour, and are more easily digested than quick-rise breads.

Although I combine my local whole wheat with a smaller portion of white bread flour, it is possible to make loaves of pure whole wheat. Here is my recipe:

2 cups freshly milled red fife or hard spring/winter wheat, more for dusting
1 cup white bread flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 ¼ - 1 ½ cups water all at once. Stir until blended; dough will be shaggy. Cover bowl with damp kitchen cloth (keep moist). Let dough rest at least 12-18 hours at room temperature, about 18-20 C°.
2. After rising the dough should be dotted with bubbles. Fold the dough over on itself once or twice, dusting the dough with flour. Cover the bowl with the damp towel and let rest about 15 minutes.
3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour; put dough on towel and dust with more flour. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size.
4. Before dough is ready, heat oven to 450°. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid or tin foil, and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 10-15 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Adapted from Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery via Mark Bittman at New York Times
Thanks to Tom Henry, Nicé Jepson, and Rob English.