If you’ve ever gotten used to the taste of Folgers coffee—as I have, intermittently, during life’s dark stretches—and then opened a bag of just-ground, freshly roasted coffee beans, you will understand my state of mind last Friday, as I walked into the production room of Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, in Northeast Minneapolis’s Food Building.
Baker’s Field is founded on the deceptively simple notion that, in a place that calls itself Mill City, where we once ground more tons of grain per day than any other single spot on the planet, and in an era of increasing leeriness over what industry has done with our food, perhaps a small-scale stone mill, grinding local, organic grains into flour, then baking them into naturally fermented bread, might be an idea worth considering.
The idea was Steve Horton’s, who had recently handed over his beloved firstborn, Rustica Bakery, to a business partner, in order to adopt this new love child. And what he encountered next was not the embrace of a city grateful to have a part of its mythology restored, but a statute that said, in short, “Not so fast.” Steve could maybe apply for a conditional use permit, but technically city law forbade building a mill in Northeast Minneapolis—a few blocks from the river that had powered the mills that built the city in the first place. Sort of like an ordinance placing height restrictions on buildings in lower Manhattan.
The statute served as a tiny, unwitting symbol of a broader problem facing most small producers of high-quality food—namely, a broken reward system that, to oversimplify only slightly, clears wide economic and regulatory paths that make large-scale conventional farming, and industrial food production easier, while small, artisanal producers, already handicapped by the economics of scale, are mostly left to hack their own way through the tangled underbrush of confusing and often nonsensical laws and regulations.
Stone milling wheat, which leaves much of the germ and bran in the resulting flour, is almost universally acknowledged as more nutritious than industrial roller milling, which removes the germ and bran entirely, then tries to add nutrients back after the fact. Sort of like piecing Humpty Dumpty back together again and marketing him as “enriched.”
Conventional wheat production is deeply dependent on pesticides, because short modern wheat hybrids (which are easier to machine harvest) don’t grow tall enough to shade out unwelcome competition. Ancient and heritage wheat varieties tend to grow tall enough to make organic production more feasible.
Large scale mills bring in wheat from all over the country, and send their finished product long distances, making most flour a carbon-intensive product, based just on the shipping distances necessary to get a five-pound bag of all-purpose Gold Medal to your grocery store.
The smaller batches and shorter distances involved in local milling put a fresher, and, by definition, better-tasting product on the shelves.
An eminently sensible solution, then, would be to grind a mix of locally grown, mostly organic grains, in a stone mill, a short drive from the retail locations where the flour would be sold.
It was such a sensible solution in fact, that they wrote laws discouraging it.
Fortunately, Steve Horton fought City Hall and won. Or, more accurately, given the extreme gentility of his mild-mannered persistence, Steve Horton joined hands with City Hall to find a mutually agreeable solution, in a spirit of reason and common cause—and we all won.
Even so, the process of changing the ordinance took over a year, and it must have used up all but the very last shreds of Steve’s politeness, to have to work so hard to create something that made such laughably perfect sense, and that nobody didn’t want.
On Friday, I found myself standing in the result—a very clean and very bright factory floor, with huge, cube-shaped sacks of whole grains set in rows along one wall. Through a doorway was the adjacent bakery, where a white-hatted crew bustled around a kneading table and a wall of stainless steel ovens. And across the room from us, behind an insulated door, spinning through the last stages of grinding about 750 pounds of hard, spring wheat, a 1,200-pound granite runner stone rotated just above its bedstone, filling the air with the music of its sustained, one-note song, like a worker who loves his job, whistling to himself as he sweeps up for the day.
Next to me was a trio of baking genius—not only Steve and pastry chef Diane Yang, who between them share five James Beard nominations, but also Kelsey McCreight, who had been Steve’s bread-baking heir apparent at Rustica, before she left to join Diane in the kitchen at Spoon and Stable and Bellecour, both of which restaurants are now customers of Baker’s Field.
Their conversation wandered down long, obscure lanes through forests of knowledge that only experts and obsessives care to explore. They talked about how different screen sizes sifted out different kinds of flour, and whether there might be an untapped market for wheat middlings that didn’t involve pig fodder. They talked about the precise temperature that would induce moisture loss early in the baking of a baguette, so that the crust could brown properly. They talked sprouted grains and whole grains and ciabattas and batards and filones. They talked elasticity, and protein levels, and ash content, and the subtle nutty flavor of emmer wheat. They talked about levains, and fermentation times, and how naturally fermented bread may be one path out of our current gluten problem, since slow fermenting with natural yeasts may make bread more easily digestible.
They talked about new wheat varieties, and how each new variety to hit the market is a little bit more productive, or a little bit more disease resistant, or a little bit more receptive to a particular type of soil, but almost never, they agreed, does a new wheat variety taste better than the ones that came before it. In fact, when the University of Minnesota develops new strains of wheat to be sold to farmers, there is not one part of their agenda that takes flavor into account, which is a state of affairs I frankly wish I did not have to consider, or could somehow unlearn.
Fortunately, this is not true of the single-source grains—some modern, some ancient—in the sacks behind us, grown intentionally for Steve Horton, organically or in transition to organic, by farmers he knows.
He talked about how the specific origins of ingredients, and the nature of their care, is at the heart of almost every current movement in the direction of craft—from bread to cheese to salumi, from coffee to beer to spirits, from butchery to greengrocery to fishmongery.
And what he was also talking about—what we were all talking about, indirectly—was a vision of the place that craft can lead to, if it is sustained over years, in a specific place, by people like Steve and Diane and Kelsey. People who care very much about little things that most people don’t care about, until those things, tended to with devotion, for reasons that don’t always make sense, gradually add up to something much bigger—not just some funky oddball beers that are blessedly not Budweiser, but a craft beer renaissance; not just a perfectly roasted morning pourover, but a coffeehouse scene; not just some excellent bread, but a recognizable Minnesota style of breadmaking—an identity akin to a French AOC. A new tradition, built on the foundation of an old tradition, in a city and a region that should have had this market cornered all along.
For it to happen someday, it will take a few more half-crazy millers, and grain geeks, and purist wild yeast fermenters, and anal-retentive baking fanatics, to join Steve and Diane and Kelsey and the few others in town who do what they do. And if it does happen, it will happen, in part, because Steve Horton wanted to bake bread with some grains that no one else would mill for him, so he decided to mill them himself, and in the process, changed a statute that was in everybody’s way, clearing a path a little farther into the understory where others now can follow.
The mill has stopped turning for the day, and it’s time for lunch, which will take place in the open kitchen of the Food Building, and will feature a charcuterie plate from Draft Horse, which includes salami from their neighbors at Red Table Meat Co., and a board full of Baker’s Field bread—a ciabatta, a complete whole wheat, a shallow-domed seeded bread, and a blunt Italian-style baguette called a filone. It is bread that tastes like bread, which shouldn’t be surprising, except that we have spent a lot of time as a culture learning to appreciate foods that don’t taste like anything—boneless skinless chicken breasts, white rice, pale-yolked industrial eggs, skim milk, walleye, and, more recently, the mashed potatoes of beef—wagyu. In the same way, we have come to think of bread as a neutral palette—a taste-free and mostly texture-free boat on which to sail other things into our mouths. But this in front of us is bread, with crust, and chew, and occasional nutty sweetness, or pleasantly bitter graininess, and—sometimes faint, sometimes pronounced, depending on the loaf—a complex and savory fermented tang.
“No molecule of commercial yeast has ever entered there,” says Steve, pointing back into the milling room.
I pass through that room once more after lunch, to gather my things. The dominant smell surrounding me fits roughly into the simple, grassy, sensory memory I associate with the word, “grain,” but is full of half-perceived secondary correlations—dust, and malt, and nuts, and hay, and molasses, and oak, and barns. Next door, they are still baking, and humid clouds of yeast and fermentation and maybe a little bit of char drift in. The great distances that have lately come to separate us from what we hunger for here have been foreshortened, and in a single room, the smell of baking bread shares the air with the smell of fields of wheat.