The Backdoor Bread Project
Ancient Grains Are Sprouting a New Age in Artisan Baking
In the world of food trends, whether one talks about eating vegetarian or grinding ancient grains, interests and enthusiasms seem to spin on a wheel. In many northern European countries, such as the Baltic States and Germany, the general public never lost its taste for whole-grain breads or sourdough artisan loaves. But in the United States, it’s taken decades to come around to what the back-to-the-landers knew in the 1960s and ‘70s: Fresh-ground flour tastes better; eating whole grains has many health benefits; even sourdough bread gets high marks for digestibility.
So when Seven Stars Bakery opened in Providence in 2001, this particular eater found great comfort in their sourdough and whole grains (the French Country Rye reminds me of my go-to bread while living in Germany: a sourdough rye I got from the corner bakery in Bonn). Seven Stars’ newest project, Backdoor Breads, has brought me memories of the loud whirring of the grain mill in the Rhode Island food co-op where I worked in the early ‘80s. And the breads that baker and Seven Stars co-owner Jim Williams (with wife Lynn) is turning out for Backdoor are wonderfully reminiscent of the Latvian and Lithuanian loaves my family craved and imported for many years from a now-departed Brockton establishment.
Back to basics could be the motto for Williams and other New England bakers who have turned to milling their own flour, trying out unusual varieties of wheat and rye; sometimes other lesser-known or underutilized flours, such as spelt, teff, buckwheat (not a wheat variety), barley and sorghum; or grinding common grains and nuts into flour (rice, oats, corn, coconut, peanuts, chestnuts and other tree nuts).
The bakers at Elmore Mountain Bread, in Elmore, Vermont, Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn, who just celebrated their establishment’s 10th anniversary, got interested in milling more than four years ago. A baker friend in Asheville, North Carolina, overnighted them some bags of flour he had milled.
“When we opened them,” Marvin recalls, “we were absolutely blown away. The aroma was something that we had never come across until that point. It started us thinking about the whole process of where our flour is coming from. The only way we could get closer to the grain was to start milling.”
Williams stopped in at Elmore a year or so later, quickly becoming friends with Marvin and Heyn and coming back to Seven Stars determined to start milling for his bakery as well. From Austria he ordered an Osttiroler mill with a 16-inch stone—and he remembers that the day it arrived, he realized it was too small.
As it happened, Heyn, who had shared his unusual wood-fired oven design with other bakeries, had just started a new business to manufacture mills, called New American Stone Mills North. He is now building a larger mill for Williams, which will have a 40-inch stone—actually two stones: The top one turns and the bottom one is stationary. The new mill will grind cooler and give a better yield per hour.
“We can adjust the precision of the grain by adjusting the width between the stones and how fast it pours,” Williams explains. “That adjusts the fineness of the flour.”
The reason that Heyn and Marvin realized they needed to design their own mill was that many of their breads already had a solid customer base, and they wanted to combine the improved nutrition and flavor of fresh-milled flour with the texture they needed for their breads. To get an airy, open-crumb baguette, for example, Heyn spent “endless hours tweaking the mill design,” according to Marvin.
Another piece of the grinding puzzle fell into place when the Elmore bakers realized they could get the mill’s granite stones from Barre, just a half-hour away from them. They also got tools from the granite workers to cut the furrows into the stones and to texture them to a specific finish.
“That makes the flour very, very fine, almost cakey and creamy,” Marvin says. “Previously our breads were made from roller-milled organic white flour. But it didn’t have the germ oil and the entire grain.”
Another task with the fresh-milled flour at Elmore is to “bolt” it, or sift it, so that the large bran flakes are taken out. Then Heyn and Marvin can mix some of the bran back in, depending on the particular bread they’re making. Marvin quips that it’s “bran management.”
Williams has opted so far to go for 100% of the grain in his Backdoor breads, though he’s considering the possibility of also using a bolter. Right now he’s grinding 250 pounds of flour a day, to keep up with the demand for wheat and rye for Seven Stars breads as well as the ones he’s introducing at Backdoor. One thing about the fresh-ground flour that he and his bakers have had to adapt to is that it creates a lot more enzyme activity in the dough and thus, it ferments a lot faster.
Another technique that differs with Backdoor breads is that there is less mixing and kneading involved. Instead, Williams does folds, between five and eight folds, letting the dough sit for approximately 30 minutes between each handling. On the day of our conversation, the bread that was baking was 35 hours old.
Williams was keeping an eye on the rack oven, where loaves baked in bread pans as well as the hearth oven, where the round loaves baked. He was baking three kinds of bread in preparation for Backdoor on Saturday at the Wintertime Farmers’ Market, in Pawtucket: Abruzzi rye; emmer, considered one of the ancient wheat grains, since it originated in Syria around 8000 BC; and triticale, a high-protein rye-wheat hybrid.
“People are buying these breads and digging for information about the grains,” Williams stresses. “They ask questions; they are excited about the many varieties. One man even told me he’d never felt better since eating Backdoor breads.”
And that brings up the questions of gluten intolerance (celiac disease), gluten sensitivities and wheat sensitivities.
One answer to the last of these is a total rye bread, such as those Williams makes for Backdoor. The answer to the first is to stick with non-gluten flours, such as rice, teff, buckwheat, corn, etc.
The answer to the middle issue of gluten sensitivities is more complicated. It might connect with the different way that the proteins in the ancient wheat grains, such as einkorn and emmer, are broken down in digestion. It may also involve the over-processing of wheat flour, left with little of the whole grain. And a sourdough bread is reputed to be easier to digest because some of that breaking-down has already been done by the starter.
At the same time as bakers have turned to milling their own flour for the breads and pastries that they create, they are also seeking local sources for their products. Williams now gets all of his grains and flours from farmers and mills in the Northeast, mostly New York, Maine and Connecticut. He is working with the Connecticut farmer to have him supply more wheat and rye in the next seasons.
Similarly, other bakers in the Northeast have developed relationships with local farmers, including Farmer Ground Flour and the Wide Awake Bakery near Ithaca, New York (expertly profiled in Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket (Chelsea Green, 2015) and Elmore Mountain Bread and Rogers Farmstead in northern Vermont.
Though “amber waves of grain” are most closely linked to Midwestern acres, wheat is actually grown in 40 of our 50 states. Researchers at Cornell and other institutions are experimenting to determine which varieties of wheat will grow best in northern climes. Red and white for wheat types indicates the color of the bran, hard and soft the amount of gluten. Bread wheat is usually hard wheat and soft wheat is used for pastries.
As Williams has worked with new varieties of wheat— including Magog, Glenn, Redeemer and Marquis—he’s learned some of their special properties. With emmer, a high-protein, low-gluten grain, he often combines a hard red wheat to help it rise. With einkorn, another ancient grain and a hard wheat with a light color, he has watched it almost liquefy during the proofing, and he has had to adjust accordingly. He’s also learned that these whole-grain breads need to sit overnight before selling them.
“Not only do the flavors meld,” he observes, “but they need to airdry or they might have too moist a texture inside.”
Seven Stars is using the bakery-ground flours in their multigrain, whole-wheat, rye and country loaves; even in their granola scones.
“I’m about to start a shortbread with emmer,” Williams says, “because it’s so tasty. It makes everything a little nuttier, richer and bigger.”
He admits to “needing a challenge” after 15 years of baking for Seven Stars.
“Everything about these grains needs to be handled differently,” he concludes. “It’s fun, it’s interesting but it’s also difficult. It’s ever-changing but that’s awesome. It’s constantly in flux.”
Just like the bakers and the farmers and the millers in this “new” ancient grains movement.
To purchase Backdoor Bread, find Jim Williams at the back door of the Seven Stars Bakery production facility, 9 am–1 pm on Saturday mornings through May 14 at:
Hope Artiste Village
1005 Main St., Pawtucket (During the Wintertime Farmers’ Market) Check Instagram @backdoorbread to see when the loaves are baking and to find out more about this bread project as it evolves with the seasons.
The Book Corner
by Alice Medrich, with Maya Klein (Artisan, 2014)
The eight chapters of this informative and useful cookbook (filled with photographs and recipes) focus on rice (both brown and white), oat, corn, buckwheat, chestnut, teff, sorghum and nut/coconut flours. All are gluten free. But instead of just creating substitutions for wheat flour in classic recipes, Medrich has focused on the inherent flavors and textures of these unusual flours. In each section, she has re-invented desserts that either star the new flour or make it part of an ensemble. The intros to each chapter are as sumptuous as the lists of ingredients, filled with facts and tips about each grain.
The New Bread Basket
by Amy Halloran (Chelsea Green, 2015)
The long subtitle of this book is a good précis: “How the new crop of grain growers, plant breeders, millers, maltsters, bakers, brewers, and local food activists are redefining our daily loaf.” According to her frequent proclamations, Amy Halloran has had a love affair with pancakes her whole life, a passion that led her to think long and hard about where the flour in those pancakes came from. She makes her topic both fun and fascinating with detailed descriptions of the people she interviews, amusing and delightful metaphors, well-researched musings on the history of flour in the United States and clear language for the complicated science of studying wheat varieties.
Johnette Rodriguez is a food, travel and arts writer published in Yankee, Saveur, the Boston Globe, SO Rhode Island, CoxHub.com and the Westerly Sun.