A few pricey loaves of bread are attempting to put ARIZONA on the map with one of the world’s most impressive comeback stories.
The dusty haze in the back room of Pane Bianco bakery in central Phoenix lends a soft focus to a scene that seems directly lifted from the 19th century. Clad in white overalls and displaying a neatly trimmed beard and muscles honed from hauling 50-pound bags of grain, Ben Butler introduces himself as a miller and master of the Austrian-made pinewood Osttiroler Getreidemühlen mill that sits behind him. He sets it to grinding, and the twin 350-pound stones rasp against each other as Butler listens for irregular tones that toll coarse from even grain, and the end-process buckets on the floor begin to fill with bran, germ and flour. “They say it’s the miller’s touch,” he says, catching a handful of the talc and softly rubbing it between his thumb and fingers. “Touch it and you can tell if it’s milled correctly. With industrial mills, the product is always the same. With ours, it’s changing all the time. That’s what makes it a little more artistic. It’s going back to the old way.”
Old, as in spinning-wheel old. Which the family, friends and celebrity chefs behind this 3-year-old startup, Hayden Flour Mills, believe is better — for you, for the environment and for the missing ingredient in a food culture that has revived everything from heritage turkeys to bathtub gin.
Forget small-batch cider, craft pickling and microcheese dairies. If you wanted to bring back a heritage item from the nation’s larder, nothing’s more trouble than wheat: trouble in competing with big-agriculture Goliaths; trouble in harvesting small, disparate fields in a cost-effective manner; and trouble in educating consumers on the difference between White Sonora and Red Fife varieties — because flour’s flour, right?
Wrong, considering the tens of thousands of wheat varieties in the world. Knowing some of those grains and where they come from may be the next big thing in food, as indicated by the recent rise of micromills like Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Farmer Ground Flour in upstate New York, each of which follows the progenitor of them all, Anson Mills, which has been growing preindustrial grains in Columbia, S.C., since 1998.
“This has happened with every other food product in the system, from heirloom tomatoes and organic vegetables to poultry, eggs and beef,” says filmmaker JD McLelland, who charts the rise of retro wheat in the feature-length documentary The Grain Divide, due out in August. “People accept that if they want preindustrial food with nutrients intact, they have to pay more. Grain comes last because it’s the most intensive and requires a lot of hands. You can’t wash it and take it to the market.”
Unlike heirloom tomatoes, wheat involves not only harvesting but storage and considerable processing before hitting the market in a yet-unfinished form in terms of the product’s life span, given that it’s still a potential ingredient in some later-baked food. Nurturing a local-grain economy requires a team that, in Hayden’s unique case, involves a visionary founder, a progressive farmer, a committed miller and an altruistic chef. As an advocate for crusty-loaf lovers at large, I came to ask if, at 10 times the cost of standard flour, the public will buy it?