The word often heard around Dawn Woodward’s table of baked goods at the farmers market is “Oh!” followed by some variation on, “I didn’t know whole grains could taste like that.”
What started as a simple and ecologically sound idea – to produce crackers and baked goods made from locally grown and milled whole flours, as opposed to the more prevalent refined kind – has become a point of gustatory pride seasoned with education. “Consider flour as flavour”: This idea is Woodward’s modus operandi.
But Woodward, who co-owns Evelyn’s Crackers with her husband Edmund Rek, is perhaps best known for her breads and baked goods found at Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns and Evergreen Brickworks markets on Saturday mornings. There you can find what at first glance seems like classic market wares: loaves of sourdough and rye, along with sweets. Instead of classic white or brown sugars, her butter tarts are loaded with maple syrup, and instead of refined flour, they’re made with 100-per-cent red fife flour – a nuttier, more flavoursome flour that pairs well with the maple. The brownies are made of buckwheat and seasoned with cardamom, and the chocolate cookies are made of rye. Here, flour is the star, not the stage on which to play.
Bakers like Woodward are looking to re-introduce consumers to the real flavour of whole-grain baked goods. Many of them hope to challenge the idea that these products don’t taste as good as ones made with white, refined flour. In fact, they say, they’re much better: If the idea of white bread is synonymous with processed, bland and homogeneous, whole-grain goods are the antithesis – distinct in flavour, with plenty of texture.
“Flour is not a base for your spices and your nuts,” Woodward says. ”Instead of adding cinnamon, or nutmeg to your baked goods, you say, ‘I am gonna add buckwheat, corn or rye. This will give me toasty sweet and nutty.’“ This is where the “Ohs” heard around her market stands come into play. “People are tasting something they haven’t tasted before, in a context they have eaten almost every day.”
One preconceived notion about these products is that they’re “hippie skippy” as Woodward says. These are the two words she uses to describe the whole-grain breads she bought from a health food store in her native Connecticut in the 80s. It’s a notion Jonathan Kauffman knows all too well. The author grew up on these foodstuffs, and recently wrote an entire book on the subject, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. “Folks in the 60s and 70s didn’t know how to work with whole grains, and were getting super gritty and dense baked goods,” says Kaufmann. For many in the counterculture, eating these brick-like baked goods was an anti-authority act unto itself. “You were committed to the idealism behind baking whole wheat bread, even if that meant retraining your palate to enjoy it.”
Outside of politics, part of the problem was in the milling and storing of whole grain flours. The outside hull of grains – where the nutritious bran and endosperm are located – is full of oils which can turn rancid quickly. That meant that the time spent between the mill and the baker was an unpredictable variable. “People were using whole wheat flours that had been sitting in bags and bulk bins and become rancid,” says Kauffman. “People think that is the flavour of whole grain breads and it’s not.”
Christine Fancy, who runs Yesteryear Baking, a stand at the Wolfville Farmers Market in Nova Scotia, also says whole grains are “misunderstood.” Fancy likes playing with the idea of whole grains as healthy, while liberally using them in arguably indulgent baked goods: rich banana bread made from whole grain red wheat flour, or cakes flavoured with molasses and ginger. She notes that people often confuse whole grain with whole wheat, so she gently corrects her customers by giving them samples of her goods, made with everything from spelt to buckwheat. She says, “People see it everywhere as a buzzword to get people on the healthy eating train, when there is so much more to it.”
When it comes to educating her audience, Fancy can simply point out the farmer who grew her grain to her customers, as he stands at his own stall across the market from her. “To be able to make that connection, it lends to a layer of transparency and quality that customers may not be able to get from grocery store flour,” she says.
Those kind of connections are what motivates Marc-André Cyr. He is one of the founders of Le Goût du Grain/A Taste for Grain, a conference for grain heads getting ready for its third year.
Cyr believed that “there was something missing in bread. Bakers don’t often talk to farmers or millers, and I wanted to see all the trades interacting with each other.” What started as an event with an expected audience of a dozen people at a friend’s restaurant ended up with sixty attendees. This year, the now not-for-profit organization is expecting a few hundred writers, bakers, farmers, and millers from across North America, all to talk about grain. What Cyr wants to see happen is a raising of the bar when it comes to quality. “Call your farmer, miller, give them feedback about their flour,” he says. “I think bakers could stand to behave a bit more like cooks: if the tomatoes are acidic, they talk to their farmer. But bakers don’t always work like that.”
A baker by trade, this Montrealer-by-way-of-Moncton fell in love with whole grain flours when he found out about the aforementioned red fife. He became hooked on learning everything he could about flour and grains in all shapes, sizes, and flavours. He and Woodward recently worked together at a pop-up event at the Drake Commissary where they presented whole grain madeleines made of red fife, something Woodward has been doing for years. “People are surprised at how yummy it is, like it wasn’t supposed to be,” he says.
Despite the issues around whole grains – growing, milling, understanding the character of each flour – bakers are optimistic about the benefits: local economies, local agriculture, but most of all, flavour. After years of eating anemic white bread, Woodward notes that her customers soon come to understand that “bread is food, and flour has flavour. Grain is an essential ingredient, and not just a platform for your sandwich.”
A guide to a better experience when using whole grain flours
Shelf-life: Whole grain flours lose flavour and freshness over time, so they should be used within six months of milling. Most reputable flour mills will have a date of milling somewhere on the packaging.
Storing: “Place it in plastic bins away from potential contaminants,” says Yesteryear Baking’s Christine Fancy. “If you’re not using it often, store it in the freezer in a well-sealed container.”
Flavour and texture: Whole grains are often a source of unfamiliar flavours and textures, and Fancy says we should embrace that. “I make a banana cream pie with 50 per cent buckwheat,” Fancy says. “It doesn’t have the crispness, but the chewiness is nice with the pie.”
Perspective: “Be patient” says Cyr. “Your bake might not work the first time if you’re used to white flour. Have fun!”