“As soon as the miracle grains came, our yields went up two, three, four times, and everybody prospered — until there was a glut in the market and prices crashed,” explains Zimmerman, whose family, like many others who felt the economic ground shift beneath them, gave up farming.
Since persuading Sossaman to join his cause, Zimmerman has had reasonable success in convincing other farmers to grow five acres for him here, 20 there. Still, he hopes more practice with ancient seeds will revive know-how lost to time — such as how to sow and water these rare breeds — that may improve yields and shrink prices. “Right now, we’re very niche,” says his clear-eyed, 29-year-old daughter, Emma Zimmerman, who left her graduate studies in neuroethics in Montreal to run the day-to-day operations (her father kept his day job). “I don’t eat at the restaurants we sell to very often. It’s still very expensive.”
On this uncharacteristically rainy Friday morning, a groggy Chris Bianco quietly sips a cup of coffee while watching the mill whirl. As a man who deals in flour daily, the owner of Pane Bianco was searching for a local supplier when he met Jeff Zimmerman in 2010. Bianco, who is famous for his nationally acclaimed Pizzeria Bianco (located nearby) and partner to überchef Jamie Oliver, generously offered to host the micromill rent-free in support. Deflecting attention, he modestly ducks out the back door today, but his actions have resounded in the chef community, and Hayden flour has been picked up by the trendiest restaurants in town (see sidebar). “Chris Bianco validated what we are doing,” says Emma later, between bites of Pizzeria Bianco’s pappardelle pasta made with Hayden flour.
For locavore chefs like Charleen Badman of tiny FnB restaurant in nearby Scottsdale, Phoenix-milled flour harmonizes with her Arizona-centric menu. But for others, it’s not reliably standard. Nor is it big enough; at Pane Bianco, brother Marco Bianco, head baker for the Bianco restaurants, goes through 500 to 600 pounds of flour per day. And then there’s the persistent problem of price. Major mills profit on efficiency; Archer Daniels Midland, for instance, processes 20 acres of wheat per minute, or roughly Hayden’s entire annual output before a typical machinist’s morning coffee break. Ergo, Wal-Mart can sell flour for 46 cents per pound versus Hayden’s $4.50.
Still, bakers like Marco Bianco, now shaping dozens of sourdough loaves in anticipation of the lunch rush at Pane Bianco, insist that ancient grains expand what they can do creatively. A little White Sonora mixed with bread flour might produce a finer crumb. Some Red Fife in the mix might give great crust. But the art is in experimenting. “It’s like having more spices in the spice rack,” Marco says. “That alone is great. And if it’s more nutritional, that’s even better.”
Ignoring the ringing oven timer, the effusive Marco takes a scientific detour into gliadin and glutenin, the components that make up gluten, the wheat protein vilified by a growing percentage of eaters. For the 1 percent of the population with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by ingesting gluten, exposure can be deadly. Additionally, about 18 million people, or 6 percent of the population, are sensitive to gluten, according to the University of Maryland School for Medicine Center for Celiac Research, causing symptoms like bloating and diarrhea and leading to the $4.2 billion market for gluten-free foods.