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The Grain of Truth

Sara Deseran | August 5, 2013 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

“And that day—three years ago—was the last time that I used white flour."

In a deeply beige conference room at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, baker Craig Ponsford, founder of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, pauses dramatically to survey the remarkably rapt group before him. His audience is members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) attending a panel discussion called “The Revolution in Local Grains,” and he’s talking about the ingredients he uses at his two-year-old San Rafael bakery, Ponsford’s Place. But he could just as well be testifying at an AA meeting, so passionate is his fervor for a new, but actually very old, flour-processing technique. “Now I get energy from what I’m baking, instead of a sugar rush and crash,” he continues, sounding for all the world like he’s talking about that other addictive white powder.

The attendees bite into buttery, toasty-tasting shortbread cookies from Ponsford’s homey smidge of a bakery, which has become cultish because it’s open only on Fridays and Saturdays. The room vibrates with a collective mmmmm. From the back, Corby Kummer, the famous food writer for the Atlantic, shouts out, “How much white flour is in this?” Ponsford proudly proclaims it white-flour free. “No way!” exclaims Kummer incredulously, as if he’s just tasted a miracle. And in some ways, maybe he has.

But before we get to that, let’s first say that this is not another fear-mongering story about wheat. To assume otherwise would be understandable, given that we’re living in a time when the word “gluten” makes parents cover their children’s ears, and the bread aisle—still smarting from the Zone and Atkins diets of yore—is avoided like the plague. Self-diagnosed, self-sacrificing gluten-intolerants are everywhere: It’s estimated that nearly one in three Americans is currently trying to eliminate or reduce dietary gluten. They gallantly order their burger with lettuce instead of a bun. They profess their love for quinoa tagliatelle. The pizza delivery guy? Persona non grata.

The public outcry against gluten has been heard loud and clear by the food industry. For eating in, there are about 1,000 gluten-free cookbooks available on Amazon, including the charmingly titled new release Gluten Is My Bitch. And chefs—even the high priests and priestesses of the Bay Area’s culinary world—have become sensitive to (or at least opportunistic about) diners’ demands. Thomas Keller has attached his name to a gluten-free flour called Cup4Cup; Delfina offers gluten-free pasta; pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery is launching a gluten-free blog; and Josey Baker of the Mill will soon be offering a gluten-free bread.

Suffice it to say that the G-word is definitely the elephant in this particular Hyatt conference room. But actually, gluten is not the topic of the panel in which Ponsford is participating. In fact, the baker has a hunch that it’s not gluten that causes the cramps, the rashes, the momentary desire to kick one’s cat, and all the other maladies—psychosomatic or not—that have become identified as gluten sensitivities. Rather, Ponsford thinks that people are reacting negatively to the how, not the what, of modern wheat flour. He blames, first and foremost, the processing method, wherein the wheat berry is moistened and then ground on a roller mill that pops off the outer coating, leaving the white flour, or endosperm, devoid of the germ and bran—the very parts that contain essential nutrients and vitamins. (As a result, white flour must be fortified with B vitamins to prevent nutritional deficiencies such as beriberi. There’s a reason that calling someone “white bread” implies that he’s lacking in substance.)

To make what is commonly called “whole wheat flour”—usually considered the healthy choice—the bran and germ are simply recombined with the white flour, essentially reconstituting the grain. How much has to be added back in order for a flour to be labeled “whole wheat” is apparently loosely regulated by the FDA—and a topic for another day. But whether you’re talking whole wheat flour or white flour, Ponsford thinks that there are negative outcomes to the roller-milling process. “A seed is a miracle,” he tells the audience at the Hyatt. “And when you take apart a wheat berry, it seems to kill it.”

The answer to the problem, as Ponsford sees it, is stone milling—also known as whole-grain milling. This old-world method grinds the wheat grain without separating the germ, bran, and endosperm, thus keeping the wheat berries truly “whole.” If Ponsford is right, it means that bread and pasta—for many gluten warriors, public enemies numbers one and two—made with what he calls “whole-milled whole-grain flour” might actually be good for you.

Ponsford is no scientist, nor is the whole-milling theory his alone. His credibility is bolstered by the fact that he is aligned with an unofficial, gourmet-leaning, Bay Area–based whole-grain think tank led by Bob Klein, the longtime owner of Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant. Functioning as the pied piper of the whole-grain movement, Klein has assembled a like-minded cohort of highly respected people, including author Michael Pollan, food scientist Harold McGee, bakers Ponsford and Chad Robertson of Tartine, distiller Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, former Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard, and Nancy Silverton of Mozza, the latter two based in L.A. Needless to say, these are hardly a bunch of back-to-the-landers. They are the culinary equivalent of the Marvel Avengers, dedicated to bringing bread back to prominence. In contrast to the early-’70s Diet for a Small Planet era—when a loaf of bread that weighed as much as a toaster was the trade-off you made for wholesome living—it’s possible that these luminaries could indeed turn the nouveau whole-grain movement into something that’s not just palatable but actually delicious. That, at least, is the dream.

Page two: Are most gluten allergies just in your head?

How liberating would it be to discover that gluten, the magical protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—the one that allows bread to rise and gives pasta its chew—hasn’t been the culprit all along? Mark Shigenaga, a biochemist focused on nutrition at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and one of Klein’s counselors, believes that gluten is too easily scapegoated and that the strength of the whole immune system—specifically as it affects the gut—needs to be considered. “I think there’s something else going on. It’s about the way the Western population eats,” he says. “And that is—crappy.”

Pollan, who devotes a chapter of his latest book, Cooked, to bread, much of it whole grain, concurs. “It’s part of our habitual obsession with individual nutrients—we focus on one molecule,” he says. “That’s not to say that there’s not some basis to it. But gluten is just protein, for heaven’s sake.” Even among experts such as Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, the consensus on what’s behind the gluten hysteria is that there is no consensus. “We have absolutely no clue at this point [about this illness],” said Guandalini in a recent New York Times article about “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”—a new, rather sweeping diagnosis for everyone who complains about gluten except those who actually have celiac disease.

With the medical experts still scratching their heads, the reported 29 percent of Americans who are attempting to avoid gluten have been searching out their own solutions. Witness the avalanche of gluten-free products that replace glutinous ingredients with natural—though not always particularly nutritious—substitutes like cornstarch, potato starch, rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, and xanthan gum (all of the above, in fact, make up Keller’s Cup4Cup). But a growing number of people—including celebrated pastry chef Michelle Polzine of the soon-to-open 20th Century CafĂ© in Hayes Valley, who finds that gluten gives her a “head rush” and mood swings—are stopping short of the gluten-free section. As Polzine says, much of the “gluten-free stuff has lots of chemicals in it, and chemicals shouldn’t be part of the ultimate solution.”

This is the view that Ponsford has taken at Ponsford’s Place—where everything, from the croissants to the baguettes, is made with whole-milled whole-grain flour. The result is a selection of pastries that are more rustic, and less pretty, than what you’d find in a Parisian patisserie, but that Ponsford’s acolytes—including customers with diabetes and a host of allergies—gobble without trepidation.

On the other side of the Bay in the neighborhood of Rockridge, Oliveto’s Klein is working tirelessly to spread the word about wheat. With the kind of maniacal enthusiasm you’d more often find in a twentysomething small-batch brewer, the 66-year-old has devoted what could be his early retirement years to Community Grains, a business that he founded four years ago. With a hearing aid, a rotund build, and a penchant for sweater vests, he looks the professorial part. When he talks about wheat, he pulls thoughtfully on his gray beard. In response to my interview request, he invites me to a whole grain–focused lunch with the promise that I won’t go into a carb-fueled coma afterward—and a warning that this whole-grain thing is complicated. “The subject is huge and interesting,” he warns, as if we’re about to jump into the fourth dimension. “We’re in for a wild ride.”

Today, Community Grains sells its whole-grain pastas and stone-milled flours at places like Whole Foods and Bi-Rite, but Klein has no intention of stopping there. He wants to “rebuild the local grain economy in Northern California” by supporting small farmers who grow different varieties of wheat (he currently has Rominger Brothers, Full Belly, and Front Porch farms growing for him); by helping to create protocols for growing and milling these often unreliable varieties (consistency and availability are essential); and by producing food of the highest culinary quality—not “hippie-dippie, good-for-you” food, as he puts it.

Klein’s propensity to deep dive into uncharted waters has a history. Since Oliveto’s nascent days, he has used the 26-year-old restaurant as a venue for food education— hosting such events as heirloom-tomato dinners and nose-to-tail feasts long before they were in vogue. “At Oliveto, we have a history of getting into things,” he says with mirth. “Very cool things happen when you spend time with your producer, your farmer, your fisherman. Northern California has a long history of that. And I thought we could do the same thing with grain. But I don’t know if I’d ever seen wheat grown when I started this. It was a casual idea at the beginning.” Not anymore. Boxes and boxes of Community Grains dried pastas, all made with different varieties of wheat, spill out of Klein’s small office. The company website has a blog, whole-grain recipes, and links to scientific articles.

While Americans are now almost blasĂ© about the number of appealingly named heirloom-tomato varieties available for purchase—beefsteaks are so 20 years ago— only 1 percent of the wheat grown here goes by an actual name, like Red Fife or Masami. In many ways, the Green Revolution (the period in the mid–20th century when the Western world figured out how to increase agricultural output by using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and hybridized seeds) is to blame for the fact that wheat has become a nameless monocrop that’s bought and sold like natural gas.

Klein intends to change this as part of his 40-year plan—which he says that he’d like to execute in 10 years. He looks forward to the day when we’ll be selecting our pasta or bread based on a varietal’s flavor profile. Like third-wave coffee, bread may eventually be sold with a little handwritten haiku—“Hard red spring wheat, 2013 Yecora Rojo: mild, pleasant, malt, earth, simple, woody, hay.” (These are actual notes from a tasting panel of 13 players in the food industry that Klein assembled.)

And here’s a potential added bonus for the bloated: Old-world grains, Klein and others are beginning to believe, not only are tastier, but could also be more easily digested. It’s a chromosome thing, they say. The Whole Grains Council cites studies showing that older wheats have lower levels of gliadins, the type of gluten protein that seems to cause most sensitivities. But Dr. Stephen S. Jones, another expert on the IACP panel (he studies 40,000 types of wheat grown every year by Washington State University’s wheat-breeding program in western Washington), disputes this. “We’ve looked at old wheats and modern wheats, and similar amounts of gluten are in both. It loses its story, I know,” he says, with a twinge of dejection. Once again, the gluten jury is out.

Page three: Bringing sexy back to bread

Old-world or new-world aside, health is clearly at the root of getting people to re-embrace the whole-grain movement. That’s why Klein is also talking to scientists, from biochemists to epidemiologists, in his quest to bring sexy back to bread. He likes to quote a recent study conducted by a team of scientists in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. It concerns the aleurone, a single cell layer just inside the bran layer that contains a combination of magnesium, iron, zinc, and ferulic acid. “It’s these things that have such a positive impact on long-term health,” Klein says. “But up until now, healthcare providers have presented dietary fiber as the most significant element in counteracting the risk of chronic disease.” The report contends that it’s the nutrients associated with fiber, not the fiber itself, that make the difference. Klein thinks, but isn’t sure, that the health effects of the aleurone layer are available to us only if the wheat is stone-milled. “Steve Jones has a little roller mill in his lab [at Washington State], and the aleurone is the stuff that is scraped off by the rollers,” he says.

Another theory that’s being tossed around is linked to an Italian study showing that long-fermented natural leaveners (versus the commercial yeast used by most large-scale bakeries) can make bread more digestible by breaking down offending peptides in wheat proteins. One baker known for the results of this process is Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. Robertson—who has become internationally famous for his country bread, which contains 50 percent white flour—has long experimented with breads made with ancient grains, tinkering with everything from emmer to kamut and einkorn. But eight months ago, he finally started selling these breads at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop, and he’s in the middle of writing a cookbook about them.

But Robertson isn’t driven to make breads using rare wheat varietals ground whole and long fermented just because they’re good for the gluten-intolerant—something that his own wife, pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, actually is. He’s doing it because he likes to tinker. “For me, the whole grain is just another flavor thing. So, for the last year, I’ve been trying to figure out other ways to approach it.”

Among the whole-grain breads Robertson sells at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop is a porridge bread that jiggles beneath its crust when poked and has an almost custardy, sticky texture when you slice into it. Making whole-grain breads that aren’t lead bricks isn’t an easy task because the bran in whole wheat flour acts like little knives, cutting up the gas-trapping gluten that gives bread its rise and pockets of air. Out of all the whole-grain breads that I taste—and I taste a lot—Robertson’s are the only ones that you can just sink into. If Klein and his posse of wheat freaks are ever going to solve the whole-grain conundrum, they're going to need to reproduce a lot of breads like Robertson’s.

A few weeks after my Oliveto lunch, I go to toast up my usual breakfast of a slice of Vital Vittles whole wheat bread, produced by a great, if hippie-dippie, bakery that started in Berkeley in 1976. I glance at the label, which mentions that it’s made with organic, stone-ground wheat. As the Vital Vittles website explains: “This traditional method of milling protects the germ and important outer layer of the grain, which are destroyed by the heat created in conventional steel-roller milling. We believe that fresh, properly ground flour is the key to superior bread.” Clearly, what we might have disregarded as crunchy, academically unproven diatribe is now reentering the modern culinary conversation. However, Vital Vittles leaves its description at that. It does not indulge in elaborate flavor profiles or precious recountings of its product’s provenance—something to which we have become accustomed in today’s world of food fetishists.

Which brings my mind reeling back to Oliveto. I’m one glass of wine into lunch, trying to grasp what Klein is pontificating about. But by now, my stomach pangs are taking control of my brain. In the nick of time, a hard red, winter wheat pasta is served, as well as a sausage pizza with a whole wheat crust. At this point, I’m very happy to be eating food instead of intellectualizing it. The pasta is tossed with Bolognese, a sauce that could make cardboard taste good, but the edge of the whole wheat pizza crust has to stand on its own. The word “scrumptious” does not come to mind, but the crust does have a pleasant, down-to-earth, nutty character that commands me to pay attention instead of gobbling it down mindlessly.

Still talking, Klein pauses to sigh—the weight of the whole-grain world on his shoulders. So much tenacity, so little time. “I guess I’m trying to do everything,” he says. But if Klein and Ponsford and their merry band of bread hackers manage to pull off the trick of reprogramming our wheat-consuming tastes—and I believe that they can—gluten-phobes may find themselves saying yes to the bread basket and the pasta bowl, and being healthier for it. And then, our 12-step program complete, we can say goodbye forever to our old friend, cocaine—I mean, white bread.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco

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