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Avenue Bread: Love of the loaf

May 2nd, 2018 | Category: Food

Local grains: Flour from Skagit Valley’s Cairnspring Mills

by Mary Vermillion

There is something new baking at Bellingham’s venerable Avenue Bread. Launched just last year, its Avenue Craft line features breads made with flour from Cairnspring Mills, a mill in the Skagit Valley that turns grains grown by local farmers into flavorful and nutritious baking flours.

The first delivery of Cairnspring Mills flour to Avenue Bread’s headquarters bakery (above) in 2017. The bakery is currently making eight styles of breads that feature Cairnsprings Mills flour. COURTESY PHOTOS

The first delivery of Cairnspring Mills flour to Avenue Bread’s headquarters bakery (above) in 2017. The bakery is currently making eight styles of breads that feature Cairnsprings Mills flour. COURTESY PHOTOS

Head baker Sean Hughes, who has been making bread for 30 years (20 of them at Avenue Bread), said working with the artisanal flour made 2017 “the most interesting baking year of my life.” It all started when he and Chris Brookfield, a Cairnspring Mills investor, met by chance at a holiday party in 2016. Brookfield gave Hughes small-batch samples, and the baker began to experiment in his home kitchen.

“I was never so happily taking work home before,” Hughes said. “There was something joyful and true about the experience. I am really proud of our bakery, but there was something personal about baking with this flour.”

Soon, the walls of Hughes’ tiny home kitchen were papered with recipes written on blue Post-it Notes as he tested and re-tested formulas. “I was happily surprised by how much attention it took to bake the bread,” he said. “It was an awesome and delicious journey.”

He began sharing notes with his fellow Avenue Bread head baker, Craig Kaskes. “It made us rethink how we are making bread because it acts so different,” Hughes said.

Among their discoveries, because fresh-milled flour activates differently than commodity flour, when making the dough, they use more water and the dough must be hand kneaded in smaller batches throughout the day vs. solely preparing it in an industrial mixer. “There’s a lot more love in it,” Hughes said. “We’re working on smaller pieces all day long and into the next day. We watch it change and become its own thing.”

The fresh flour also gives the baked loaves a longer shelf life. avenue bread web

Once his home experiments were perfected, Hughes left a loaf on the desk of Avenue Bread owner Wendy DeFreest. One bite and she was convinced. “It was a bold, value-based step to try working it into their line,” said Kevin Morse, Cairnspring Mills co-founder and CEO. “When they came down to tour the mill, they got very excited about the ability to bake healthy bread for their customers.”

Soon after, Cairnspring Mills’ first order and flour delivery was to Avenue Bread’s headquarters bakery on Humboldt Street in Bellingham.

“In our generation, we’ve gotten to know flour as this light, ubiquitous thing that looks the same and tastes the same over and over. It hasn’t been celebrated and made into something special,” Morse said. “The large mills produce 6 million pounds of flour each day, and they’re using the cheapest grain possible to maximize output. They buy and trade their grain from Kazakhstan to Kansas, not for flavor or tradition. Our story is different. We select grain based on flavor, hardiness, how well it grows locally. Wheat is as nuanced as wine grapes.”

The mill is part of Skagit Valley’s burgeoning grain economy that includes partners such as the Port of Skagit, Washington State University’s Bread Lab and local farmers. Many people who have been unable to digest bread are finding they can eat bread made from Cairnsprings Mills’ unprocessed, local grain flours.

“We hope Avenue, Breadfarm and other small businesses involved in this movement start a larger conversation about what we’re doing in this country with bread that’s making people sick,” Hughes said. That conversation and the comradery of other bakers and mill workers has been one of the great joys of the project, he adds.

Starting in summer 2017, Avenue Bread began sharing the results with customers. For now, the bakery will continue making its popular classic bread recipes with traditional flour; front-of-house staff are sharing information with customers.

“We’ve always been about sourcing locally – not just for our breads but also what goes in our sandwiches and salads – but it is exciting to be able to source our breads’ main ingredient from just down the road,” said Elma Burnham, Avenue Bread’s marketing and outreach manager.

The line currently includes eight styles of robust breads that feature Cairnsprings Mills flour as well as flour from other regional mills and malt from Skagit Valley Malting. There is a delicious rumor Hughes is perfecting an Avenue Bread oatmeal cookie made from Cairnsprings Mills pastry wheat.

The loaves, which are a bit larger and darker in crust color, are available at all Avenue Bread locations. The James Street store – and soon all locations – also offers sandwiches on the craft bread.

You can buy Avenue Craft bread at all their Bellingham locations. Currently, sandwiches made on the Craft line are sold at the James Street store only. Home bakers can buy Cairnspring Mills bread and pastry flour in the bulk section of the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. The Bellingham Food Co-op sells Cairnsprings’ teff flour. Cairnspring Mills also hosts open houses where bakers can buy the flour and meet the wheat growers, millers, bakers and buyers. Find more information at their website, cairnspring.com.

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