Ooo…That Smell. Freshly Milled Grains

(c)2012 Edmud Rek/Rekfotos

I recently met Sophie the lead miller, grain tester and bread baker for La Milanaise at a restaurant in Montreal. This impassioned young woman approaches milling organic grains like none other. In her test kitchen, she studies the properties of grains from the field to the oven. In a buzzing hot-spot in downtown Montreal, over small pates of house-cured meats and good French wine, she explained to me how she brings her bread to restaurants rather than eat theirs. It becomes a show-and-tell to the waiters and chefs how heritage grains react to moisture and the benefits to longer fermentation, making huge improvements to texture and flavor.

We spoke a little about her experience with gluten-free. Even though chickpea flour makes beautiful dough, Sophie believes the gluten-free trend is coming to an end and focus is now on ancient grains.

Some of these first cultivated crops have natural gluten levels and the uncanny ability to adapt to all types of growing conditions. She explains the plant naturally wants to survive, even thrive. She explains few of the heritage wheats can be planted both in spring and winter. It just adapts. Where the crossbred grains tend to show instabilities after seven years, which is not good for farmers who are trying to establish their crop. (Huge benefits here!)

As vital as gluten is for many bakers it still can be a source of extreme discomfort for individuals with celiac disease and should not be taken lightly. For them it certainly is not a trend but an un-welcomed medical condition and can be a difficult way of life. A life limited by their food choices and a blind trust that something labeled gluten-free, is exactly what it says.

Growing and eating more ancient grains is the final cog in the wheel to raising awareness of the good sustainable food movements. By now most of us understand the impact of poor animal husbandry, unappetizing caged chickens and feedlot cattle. It’s also clear to imagine the negative effect of fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides and herbicides effecting the natural habitat of bees, insects and contamination of ground water. What’s harder to see is is how modern wheat is bred to fit into the form of large scale farming. Ancient and heritage grains can offer everything this wheat cannot.

With heritage grains and a dedicated miller, the artisan baker is most happy. When we get our weekly flour delivery a wonderful mixture of smells of toasted grass and warm earth floats through the kitchen. At the market, my eyes light up when someone asks me about our cloth bags filled with Red Fife wheat. I’ll hold up the bag and say, “Here, smell!”

Kneading Conference East 2013: Crackers, Wood-fired Ovens & Tandoor Baking. (Recipes)

All of the baking at the conference was done in wood-fired ovens, which needed to be kept warm all night for the next days bake.

All of the baking at the conference was done in wood-fired ovens, which needed to be kept warm all night for the next days bake. (all photos copyrighted and credited to: Edmund Rek/rekfotos.com)

Evelyn’s Crackers participated in the Kneading Conference again this year. Co-teaching three workshops with Naomi Duguid: Crackers, Tandoor Baking and Grain Tasting was like a homecoming seeing many of the familiar faces of fellow lecturers and attendees. The conference draws some of the best talent in bread baking, oven building and anything related to dough or grains (even rice this year) making the event one not to miss.

We owe thanks a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement. The first Kneading Conference was held in July of 2007 in the heart of Somerset County,

“where wheat production fed over 100,000 people annually until the mid-1800′s. Reviving wheat varieties that succeed in Maine’s climate is not only a realistic goal, but a critical one in light of rising transportation costs and the recognition that food security must rely on local farms. By bringing together the diverse stakeholders who collectively can rebuild lost infrastructure and create demand for local and regional grain systems – farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, wheat researchers – on-the-ground plans take shape. In Maine, the Kneading Conference has been the impetus for start-ups amongst a growing cluster of grain related businesses.” http://kneadingconference.com/

Multiple workshops were going on simultaneously and the images below capture only a fraction of the offering from the Kneading Conference. The open venue is airy and relaxed. One can mingle from one class to another and serves as a model for the Kneading Conference West coming up in September near Seattle, Washington and other agricultural areas interested in reviving local farming heritage.

A view of our outdoor workshop with our own copper covered hearth in the background.

A view of our outdoor workshop with our own copper covered hearth in the background.

The rolling pins of choice for the cracker class are without handles offer a better feel for the dough and become an extension of the your hands.

The rolling pins are without handles for offer a better feel for the dough become an extension of the your hands.

Stamping the rye crackers with Middle Eastern bread stamps before being baked in the wood-fired oven.

Stamping the rye crackers with Middle Eastern bread stamps before being baked in the wood-fired oven.

A beautiful rustic rye cracker stamped by wooden handled bread stamps from the Middle East.

A beautiful rustic rye cracker stamped by wooden handled bread stamps from the Middle East.

Sour dough bagels waiting to be baked for a few minutes before being flipped.

Bagels going into the oven.  They had to be turned on their backs and baked for a few minutes on the wooden board as not to stick to the "floor" of the oven.

Bagels going into the oven. They had to be turned on their backs and baked for a few minutes on the wooden board as not to stick to the “floor” of the oven.

The bagel workshop was full of history and techniques taught by Jeffrey Hamelman.  Truly amazing to watch him bake in the wood-fired oven and learning the adjustments he had to make from a traditional oven. This photo shows a few that stayed in a little too long, but look great to me.

As varied and versatile as the workshop program was, so were the types of ovens at the fairgrounds for the bakers to use. This one was placed on cinder blocks vs. a trailer.

As varied and versatile as the workshop program was, so were the types of ovens at the fairgrounds for the bakers to use. This one was placed on cinder blocks, most were on movable trailers.

Tandoor baking class.

Tandoor baking class with Naomi Duguid.

Stretching the dough before baking it in the Tandoor.

Stretching the dough before baking it in the Tandoor.

Carefully adding the dough to the sides of the tandoor oven.

Carefully adding the dough to the sides of the tandoor oven.

A piece of naan bread ready to come out of the Tandoor oven.  The long steel tools hold the bread in place and pull it from the oven sides at the same time.

A piece of naan bread ready to come out of the Tandoor oven. The long steel tools hold the bread in place and pull it from the oven sides at the same time.

Fresh from the Tandoor.

Fresh from the Tandoor.

Rye bread dough ready to be shaped.

Barak Olins has shaped his rye dough that will be baked in the copper wood oven.

Barak Olins has shaped his rye dough that will be baked in the copper covered wood oven.

Rye bread just out of the wood-fired oven.

Rye bread just out of the wood-fired oven.

The most important part of a wood-fired oven.  The door.

The most important part of a wood-fired oven. The door.

2012 The Rise of the Artisan Cracker

(Evelyns Cheddar Crispies Cracker and Monfortes Buffalo Milk Cheese. Photo Credit ©2012 Edmund Rek/Rekfotos.com)

Looking back fondly on last year (2011) we had tremendous growth partnering with nearly thirty new specialty stores surrounding Toronto and a new account in Nova Scotia and we were contacted by a specialty distributor in New Jersey who supplies New York City. As great as that sounds (say in unison: NEW YORK CITY!) we are going to focus the beginning of this year developing the relationships we have, be present advocating for local food and supporting farmers markets and hopefully inspire others to do the same. A new market like Ottawa, or NYC is something we are strongly considering for 2012. But, as small batch producers who bake our crackers to order, slow and steady growth has been the best way to expand and offer a quality artisan cracker.

2011 also brought us a new cracker and shortbread flavors. Inspired by one of our original crackers the “Salty Oats” the “Oat Cakes” have been very well received at the farmers markets and are starting to be available in a few stores starting this week. A “Rose Cardamom Shortbread,” turned to be the perfect partner in crime with the “Lavender Shortbread” to bring out your inner cookie monster. We look forward to other ideas and opportunities to bring local heritage grains to market. Muesli, granola, a hot cereal and a couple pancake mixes have been our newest inspirations.

We are a chef and baker rooted in the local, organic and good food movements; Evelyn’s Crackers has been a product of that. We also look forward to acting beyond advocators, but also as educators and offer insight to foods, how to prepared them and offer ways for you to participate in your own local community.

As always, we are grateful to our Ontario farmers who share in our commitment to offer wholesome food:

CIPM Farm;
Stoddards Farm;
Franz Seeberger;
Dancing Bees;
Hoovers Maple Syrup.

How to Eat a Cracker

First, use your fingers and feel the weight and thickness of the cracker.

Then look closely at the color and texture. Are there seeds, or whole spices. Turn the cracker over. Is it the same on both sides. Hold it close to your nose and take a nice long smell to the point of being able to taste the cracker.

Now take a bite. Hear the crunch on your teeth then listen to the crunching in your head. Is it loud enough to catch someone else’s attention.

Now you have a mouthful of cracker. What does it taste like? Do you sense some acidity in your cheeks? Or spice on your tongue?

Repeat.

Now add cheese, and different types preserves, cured meats and smoked fish. Or not. Some are great on their own.

Most of all: Enjoy!