Here in the Southeast, we locavores have it pretty good. In a land where a bounty of food grows year-round, it’s a heck of a lot easier to eat locally than it is in, say, Minnesota. Even so, there are some foods we just can’t reliably produce here. Coffee comes to mind. And lemons, bananas, artichokes, cherries, avocados (the good kind), cocoa.
OK, artichokes we can live without. But what about coffee and chocolate? If you’re trying not to burn more than your fair share of fossil fuel but can’t imagine life without those staples, how do you have your mocha grande and drink it, too?
Like-minded consumers have settled on a compromise: When you can’t produce it locally, process it locally. By bringing the processing close to home, you simplify and control as much of the distribution chain as possible—and you create a fresher, better-quality end product, too. It’s the philosophy behind the success of Atlanta’s artisan coffee roasters and chocolate makers.
Now local-food fans are applying that approach to another Southern challenge: bread. Southern cuisine revolves around biscuits and corn bread for good reason. High-gluten hard wheat, the kind needed for the best risen bread, is difficult to grow in our humid climate. Lucky for locavores who also like sandwiches, a reasonable solution has already been established by a different group of niche consumers.
For a couple of decades, some health-food enthusiasts have been buying whole grain from afar and grinding their own flour at home. Now those bakers and grain-retailers are finding their way into farmers markets.
“When I grind that wheat berry, I’m taking that whole berry, grinding it into flour and baking it that day,” says Melanie Skinner, who sold breads and other baked goods this summer at the Cotton Mill Farmers Market. Although the market is closed for the season, Skinner sells grains for home bakers year-round at her Carrollton store, Whole Grains and More. The wheat berries come from Montana, but what you process in your home is locally milled, truly whole-wheat flour.
“I don’t care what they call it, you really cannot get whole-grain bread flour in the store,” says Sue Becker, who with her husband, Brad, founded Bread Beckers in Woodstock in 1992. Commercial roller mills separate bran and germ from the endosperm; to make whole grain flour, they blend it back into white flour. Countertop mills aren’t that complicated.
Home-millers swear by the taste and health benefits. Immediate baking means far fewer nutrients are lost to oxidation. Becker says she made only three trips to the doctor with seven children in 20 years. And folks avoiding gluten have more options for flours, making them from amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa.
Want to try it yourself? All it takes is a countertop mill—a good one will run you about $250—and some practice baking bread. Before you invest, take a class or buy a bag of freshly milled flour to try at home (just don't let it sit around too long).
For those of us who love knowing where our food comes from, the best thing about milling flour at home from whole grain is its … wholeness. “You can see it is a wheat grain kernel that came off a plant, and you’re the one who does the altering; you’re the one who grinds it, and I like that,” says Decaturite Rhonda Wildman, who started milling and baking at home about six years ago. She gets organic wheat berries by the bucket from Bread Beckers; other suppliers include Sevananda Natural Foods Market in Atlanta, Your DeKalb Farmers Market in Decatur, and Whole Grains and More. “I wasn’t going to be the one who grows it, but at least this part of the process, I’m in on.”
Image: Melanie Skinner's whole-grain bread