Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd annual Kneading Conference West, which happened to be right here in Mount Vernon at the WSU Research and Extension Center. I was thrilled to get a press pass for it, as the conference sold out some time ago. This is an amazing event!
The remarkable thing about this conference was how happy everyone was. It was more like a music festival than a professional conference. Everyone there was equally obsessed with bread and grains and ready to talk with everyone else about it.
The first keynote speech was from one of my very favorite cookbook authors, Naomi Duguid. She talked about the history of bread and grain in human culture and the watering down of industrial flours. She compared commercial flour to making a wine out of all the tail ends of bottles after a party, which I thought was a particularly fine metaphor, and challenged everyone in the room to go home and start baking with different grains.
A panel on whole grains started with a discussion on nutrition and source disclosure, then wandered into the issue of phytic acid, which makes bread less digestible and its nutrients less available, but can be neutralized through long fermentation, then devolved sharply at the end into a discussion of gluten intolerance. This was obviously a conversation that could have gone on for hours. Or days.
Conflicting classes in the second half of the afternoon included a heritage grain tasting, bagels in the wood-fired oven, home-grown grains, and a pies, galettes and tatins workshop. I wandered around between them, but many people had trouble choosing. So many things to learn!
The grain tasting seemed really interesting, with crackers baked from individual varieties, but the room was crammed full of people and there didn’t seem to be quite enough samples to go around. I’d love the opportunity to do something like this in a more intimate setting, it could be really fun.
I wandered into the bagel workshop just in time to be handed a warm Montreal-style bagel coated with toasty sesame seeds. Mark Doxtader, who was teaching the class, makes these for the Portland Saturday Market. I may have to get back to making bagels myself, now that I’ve been reminded how good they are – it’s hard to get a fresh bagel around here.
The test kitchen was so crowded barely a glimpse of pie was visible, glimmering with fresh peaches from the test orchard. Fortunately the pies made an appearance at dinner, later that day.
Before dinner all the attendees were treated to a tasting of Gothberg Farm goat cheese along with crackers from Dawn of Evelyn’s Crackers based in Toronto, plus samples of beer from Skagit Malting. The beers are made to showcase different malts and are not available for sale at this time, unfortunately.
All meals were provided with the conference and ranged from pizza baked on-site, tamales, quesadillas made with chard and beets, more hot fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox, barbecue, bread and desserts left over from various workshops, and lots of goodies from the Breadfarm. Not to mention all the samples that were being passed around. I ate so much bread I wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage another carb for a week after.
The keynote on the second day was delivered by Andrew Whitley, of the organization Bread Matters in Scotland. He spoke about how the idea of what bread should be like has changed, from something changeable and interesting to something utterly predictable, a bland backdrop for other foods. His work is to educate people about nutrition and taste in real bread. He’s a great speaker and I intend to track down a copy of his book.
A workshop on flatbreads with Naomi Duguid covered a wide range of recipes, including Afghan naan, banana flatbreads from Burma, and a Finnish barley bread. As each bread came out of the wood fired oven, it was cut into small pieces and passed around the audience. When a basket of naan failed to reach the back row a small riot broke out, one of the only times during the conference that good cheer threatened to fail.
While the flatbreads were being fought over on one side of the tent, an intense class on wood fired pizza was being presented on the other side. They covered tools, ovens, recipes and flour. Each attendee got to shape, sauce and fire their own pizza, resulting in over a dozen pizzas needing to be eaten (which didn’t seem to be a problem, thanks to hungry passersby). As a friend of mine who attended the class observed, “that was as much fun as it’s possible to have without getting arrested.”
Crackers had their own workshop, with special attention to the differences of crackers to other forms of baking, particularly their heat sensitivity. “Working with whole grains involves a whole new set of expectations,” said presenter Dawn Woodward, including a new concept of “done” since many of them are much darker in color than wheat. “You want to add a lot of water since water’s free, but too much makes them fall apart.” You do, however, want to dry them out properly, she said. “I bake the crap out of the crackers.”
I stopped by the brewing tent too late for anything but some mash scooping. Oh, well. I’m really excited to hear about what Skagit Malting is up to, though, and look forward to hearing more about their work.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the sourdough at home class being taught by Essential Baking’s George DePasquale, an extraordinarily excellent workshop. He explained the difference between dry yeast, biga, liquid levain and stiff levain. The biga in particular, he said, is very accommodating. “Make it in the morning before work, make the bread after work. Make it Friday evening, intend to bake it Saturday morning. Your dog runs away, chase your dog, make the bread later that day.”
He encouraged everyone to try using sourdough starters but not to get too obsessed about saving one particular starter, or taking heroic actions if they die. “Don’t get attached, they’re just little bugs.” He also encouraged experimentation, but urged us to understand the process fully before branching out with different grains or fermentation times. He had everyone make dough and practice kneading and shaping it (“The mixing stage is where you work out your issues with your mother. In shaping, be gentle”), then demonstrated baking one loaf. He reminded the class that there is no one right way to make bread. “The only thing that’s right is if you like it.”
While all these other workshops were going on, a small and dedicated group was working with Kiko Denzer to build an earth oven. Working with mud, water, sand, wood and straw, they looked like they were having a total blast.
The slip needed to be mixed by hand to break up the last clumps, resulting in some nice “mud gloves.”
This was a little model oven that Kiko made as part of a quick orientation to mud oven building. It’s built onto a garbage can lid, to give you an idea of scale.
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.
An orchard tour on Saturday morning turned out to be a great introduction to all the varieties of fruit that can be grown in Western Washington. Our guides showed us different varieties of treefruit, grapes, berries and kiwi, talked about their disease resistance and pests, picked some different plums for us to taste (the Mirabelle plum knocked one woman into a swoon), and answered questions about cultivation and pruning.
Scott Mangold of the Breadfarm taught a class on testing different wheats and grains in bread. He does a lot of testing of the wheats being developed at the Extension, so this is definitely something he’s had some practice at.
The last panel I attended was on infrastructure and the relationships between growers, millers, bakers and customers. The panelists included a farmer/miller, a baker, 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.
The focus of the discussion was the difficulty of creating an infrastructure from scratch, and changing methods of farming and supply in midstream. In Skagit Valley, there has been so little grain industry that there are no longer grain storage sites. The difference between selling an entire harvest at once to a major company and holding onto grain and sending it out gradually to smaller customers can be difficult shift for a farmer.
Farmer Dave Hedlin and Skagit Malting founder Wayne Carpenter both had plenty to say about the challenges of rebuilding grain infrastructure in this area. Tom Hunton of Camas Country Mill in Oregon spoke about his experiences moving from grass seed to grain production and milling, and how much more rewarding it is, despite the difficulties, for him to work directly with the people who use his product. “You never know where these things are going to connect us.”
There were also bakers from Grand Central and New Seasons, who talked about the appeal of local foods to the customer, and how often a story or local connection will be more of an attraction than a product just labeled “organic.” On the other had, as baker Cliff Leir observed, “It doesn’t matter if you have a great local product with a great story behind it if it tastes like shit.”
You can see the rest of my photographs from the conference over on my flickr set. My official review of the conference appeared in the October 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine, you can read it here. [edited 10/8/12]