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Review: Baking, building and more at Kneading West Conference

Oct 6th, 2012 | Category: Reviews

by Jessamyn Tuttle

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the 2nd annual Kneading Conference West, held at the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, was how happy everyone was. This joy continued to permeate the entire event as the attendees, a mix of home bakers, professional bakers, maltsters, grain geneticists and farmers, talked, worked, ate and mingled over the course of three sunny September days. Conversations ranged from discussions of favorite sourdough recipes to the design of backyard pizza ovens to the creation of grain industry infrastructure, but the common element was passion.

Wood fired bagels. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

This conference is a west-coast version of the original Kneading Conference, which has been held in Skowhegan, Maine for the past six years. I can’t imagine that the West Coast conference attendees are in any way less dedicated and enthusiastic. Bringing together grower, millers and bakers from all over, the goal of the conference is to promote awareness of artisan breadmaking and everything it takes to make (and sell) a real loaf of bread, from the ground up. I met professional bakers from Victoria, the Gulf Islands, Manitoba, Oregon and Utah, as well as many serious home bakers with wood-fired ovens in their backyards, plus a few grain farmers and scientists. The weather was too nice for many farmers to attend, unfortunately – they were all out working.

The first keynote speech was from Toronto-based photographer, world traveler and food writer Naomi Duguid. She talked about the development of bread in different cultures (she suggested that an early idea for dealing with tough grains might have been “Maybe if I whack it with a rock it’ll cook faster”) then observed that everyone in the room was obsessed about bread to some degree, challenging us all, as bread advocates, to restore respect and commitment to real bread and whole grains.

The second keynote was delivered by Andrew Whitley, a baker, whole bread advocate and founder of the organization Bread Matters in Scotland. He felt that the Kneading Conferences show that the US is “light years ahead of the UK” in terms of whole grain and awareness of real bread. “The greatest trigger for dietary change is a cancer diagnosis in the family,” he said. “We have a cultural issue here to get over.” His organization tries to educate the public about bread, and points out things like the fact that the nutritional value of wheat is only calculated for animal feed, not wheat for human consumption. They aren’t trying to drag down the bread industry, he explained, but asking for honest labeling so people can make informed choices. They want minimum nutritional standards for milled grain, and look for ways to encourage community baking while establishing a genuinely local supply chain. “A fermentation involves diversity, interaction, interdependence,” said Whitley. “This event is like a fermentation. It will transform the way we grow and cook.”

A mud dance during the construction of an earth oven by workshop participants. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The three days of the conference were a mix of workshops, food and continuous conversation. Two wood-fired ovens parked outside were the site of classes on bagels, flatbreads, yeasted sweets, Neapolitan pizza, and crackers, while the indoor kitchens hosted workshops on pies, sourdough bread, test baking with heritage grains, and an ongoing class for professional bakers. Another tent housed a demonstration of beer brewing, starting with the raw barley. There were also tours of the WSU research center’s fruit garden, wheat testing fields and bread lab.

While most of the attendees cycled through the various workshops and panels, a small, dedicated and rather muddy group was working with Kiko Denzer out at the edge of the conference grounds, building a small earthen bread oven. Working with sand, mud, straw, water and wood, the builders gradually created a smooth oblong dome with a door set into one end. By the end of the conference the oven was as yet unfired, but complete and beautifully decorated with leaf patterns. A silent auction during lunch on the last day resulted in its new owner frantically wondering how to move the oven to Utah, looking simultaneously dismayed and delighted.

There was plenty of food. Not only did many of the baking workshops produce samples, but all meals were provided. Pizza baked on-site by Rolling Fire Pizza from Seattle, pulled pork and baked beans from Bonanza Bar-B-Q (served on fresh bread from the professional bakers’ class), and fresh tamales all made an appearance. Breakfast each morning featured pastries from the Breadfarm in Edison, although hot bagels coming out of a wood-fired oven lured an eager crowd as well. There were also tastings of local specialties, including Gothberg Farms goat cheese, local ciders, and beer from the new Skagit Valley Malting & Brewing Company.

Scott Mangold of Bow-based Breadfarm. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The baking classes were extremely popular. The workshop on making sourdough bread at home, presented by Essential Baking’s George DePasquale, was a fantastic, detailed master class. He covered starters, dough, rising, shaping, and baking, until finally losing his voice a few hours later. He encouraged students to learn to make a classic sourdough baguette, then branch out with different starters, flours and techniques to find their own favorite loaf. “Don’t make my baguette,” he said.  “I make thousands of my baguettes, you can buy them anywhere in Seattle. Learn how to make your baguette.”

The last panel I attended was on grain infrastructure and the relationships between growers, millers, bakers and customers. The panelists included a farmer/miller, an artisan baker who mills his own flour, a caterer and an extension agent who works with local wheat farmers. They had plenty to say, but so did the audience, and the gathering quickly turned into an animated general discussion. Farmers discussed the logistics of switching from a single large industrial contract to selling to individual bakeries such as Grand Central Bakery, which uses 3 million pounds of soft white wheat per year but depends on their farmers to store it for them and deliver it gradually. This means the farms need to find clean, dry grain storage, which in Skagit Valley is in short supply (Mount Vernon’s grainery building has an Italian restaurant in it, as one attendee observed). It can also put a strain on the farm’s finances, and higher costs tend to work their way up into the final product. But as a baker from New Seasons market commented, “people come back when they know you’re trying to do the right thing.”

Mike Dash of Rolling Fire Pizza. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Skagit farmer Dave Hedlin, who was in the audience, commented on the difficulty of moving from commodity farming to supplying artisans, what he calls Small Grains 101. “I’ve had to change my mindset 180 degrees,” he said. He credits Dr. Stephen Jones, director of the research center and chairman of the conference, for much of the progress that’s been made in the Skagit Valley agricultural community. “Steve has a PhD in synergy,” he commented. “We can reinvent ourselves.”

Then Dr. Jones wandered through the crowd with a tray of fresh hot pretzels from the professional baking class and everyone fell silent for a moment. Sometimes fresh bread is really what it’s all about.

Published in the October 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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