On Carolina ground

Nice buns: Cathy Cleary of the West End Bakery holds cinnamon buns made with Carolina Ground Flour. Photos by Max Cooper
Nice buns: Cathy Cleary of the West End Bakery holds cinnamon buns made with Carolina Ground Flour. Photos by Max Cooper

After much planning and an epic amount of hard work, the Carolina Ground mill is operational. The mill, located at Annie's Naturally bakery in West Asheville, enables the production of flour made from regionally grown hard and soft wheat and other local grains. An Asheville-based mill, processing North Carolina hard wheat, finally means truly local bread.

What's the big deal? First, hard winter wheat is more difficult to grow in our climate than corn, oats and soft wheat, which is why quick breads like biscuits, cornbread and the like are the traditional plate moppers of the Southeast (hard wheat abhors humidity). Without hard winter wheat, which has the right level of gluten, yeasted breads simply won't rise properly.

Various factors conspired to encourage the growth of hard winter wheat in this region, notably the bread-wheat trials which began in the early 2000s. According to Jennifer Lapidus, a spearheading member of the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project (an initiative of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association), the first hard wheat suitable for production in the eastern U.S. came to fruition five years later, thanks to the work of Dr. David Marshall of the Plant Science Research Unit in Raleigh.

The Carolina Ground mill is one effort to carry that work forward by offering a viable processing facility as well as an opportunity for the farmer to find a local source for grain. And local bakers benefit, too. "Fostering the relationship between the grower, miller and baker provides a tangible level of security and sustainability for all three," writes Lapidus in the NCOBFP’s blog.

Now that the facility is operational, Lapidus oversees the milling, spending her days covered in flour when not working tirelessly to keep the project humming.

And, as it turns out, the benefits aren't limited to bread bakers — just ask some local restaurant owners.

Face-melting pancakes

Carson Lucci has owned Over Easy Café on Broadway Street for the past five years. A staunch supporter of the local-food movement, Lucci's restaurant uses Mountain Air Roasters coffee, local eggs, cheese, produce and meats. This year, she's decided to take it a step further.

"In February, we completely ditched our menu and decided to re-invent ourselves, in a sense," Lucci says. "In doing that, I really wanted to focus more on what I've always wanted to do, which is to [offer] even more seasonal things and try to support as much local stuff as we can." The menu now changes every five weeks, Lucci says. The latest version includes springtime goods like ramps, spring onions, greens and strawberries — and now Carolina Ground flour.

Lucci was on board with the product before a price was even announced. "I wanted to go ahead and make sure my staff is educated on Carolina Ground so we can really promote that," she says.

Though the Over Easy chefs don't have much room to do their own baking, they have been able to incorporate the flour into one distinct breakfast item — pancakes, which they can be flexible with. "I'm not even set on it being a white flour,” Lucci says. “It can be rye, it can be wheat — I don't care. Give us whatever. They'll still be fantastic pancakes. And that gives Jennifer a little bit of freedom to just mill what she has or even what's left over."

The pancakes incorporate Chesney, S.C. strawberries and goat cheese, topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. "They're so good," Lucci says. "I feel honored to be able to support [Carolina Ground] in that manner. It will make people more aware that we have local flour, even if they just read about it on the menu. We're trying to do a healthier version of everything that we do [at Over Easy], and how great to have pancakes that actually have some nutritional value — even if we do add whipped cream."

And, although the flour isn't comparatively cheap, its value may be greater. "It's going to cost me twice as much as what I'm paying now, but it's one of those things I think is totally worth it," Lucci says. "Having support from this local community means everything to me, and it's the least I can do to put that flour in some delicious pancakes."

And the customer reaction? "I got an email the other day from someone who ate that pancake and they said it 'melted their face off,'" Lucci says.

The Portlandia factor

Cathy Cleary of West Asheville’s West End Bakery was part of the coalition of bakers and bakeries that formed the NCOBFP. Now, she makes cinnamon rolls exclusively with the local flour, as well as pizza dough that incorporates Asheville Brewing Company’s Ninja Porter. Including organic flour from Lindley Mills in Graham County, 50 percent of the flour used in the bakery is locally grown.

"I am so excited," Cleary says. "It's been a long time coming, although we've gotten the chance to test drive it a little along the way — Jennifer has been super-good about milling small test batches of flour and giving all of the bakers 10-pound bags to work with, just to check it out and see what's working the best."

Cleary implies that enabling bakers to give feedback to farmers growing the grain that will eventually become their bread may create a revolution in local baking. "This whole project is about getting a conversation going between the farmer and the miller and the baker," she says. "That was really cool because we were able to give feedback to the farmers about how the grain that they grew was working out as bread-flour for us — then they were able to plant the things that we were most interested in."

We're not the only city invested in the local-flour movement. For starters, there's also Farmer Ground Mill in Ithaca, N.Y., Camas Country Mill in Eugene, Ore. and Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine, which should begin milling by this summer. "But we’re still pretty cutting edge, I would say," Cleary says.

Cutting edge or no, the cost of selling baked goods made with flour that costs twice as much as standard flour has to be absorbed somewhere.

"Talk about touchy subjects!" Cleary says. "Talking about the price of the grain and the price of the flour can sometimes be hard if you're sitting at the table with the guy who grew it, who wants a certain price for it and the person who's milling it who needs to pay a certain price for it — and then the person who wants to buy it as cheaply as possible."

Though a certain segment of the population cares about the origin of its food, an even larger part of the population does not, whether it's because they're weary of restaurant menus that read like a Portlandia prop or they're just focused on getting food on the table, no matter where it's from. "Trying to strike that balance between having a price that works for the people that don't care at all so that you're not isolating yourself to a particular part of the population can be hard," Cleary says. "But the take-home message is that we have to see it through the entire process — we can't just bake bread and say it's locally made because I baked it. All of the ingredients have to be grown and sourced locally for it to be locally made."

Cleary does acknowledge the Portlandia factor; selling the "local" and "sustainable" idea can easily come across as pushing overwrought locavore jargon, especially in a time when offering a pork chop in some consumer markets isn't enough. Sometimes, it's got to be a farm-raised, organic, free-range pork chop tor it won’t sell.

"I think it's really important for people to connect back to that it's not about 'local is trendy,' but 'local is about sustainability,'" Cleary says. "It's about making sure that we are in charge of where our food is coming from and that we're making sure it's clean and we know the sources and can trace it back. It's about food security. If shit hits the fan, for lack of a better phrase, we have resources that we've been working on for years in place to take care of ourselves. Local is super trendy, but I think it's important to remember why: Because it's really important."

Peas and thank you

At Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street, owner John Stehling has purchased the flour too, which will find its way into pancakes and other items in which the restaurant already uses whole-wheat flour.

"We're toying with some ideas,” Stehling says. “We love the mill and love supporting it and seeing things like that come about in our community. But, unfortunately, we won't be able to use it on the scale that the local bakers can. There's a lot of really neat things happening [as a result] that people like me can use.”

As Stehling indicates, there are other byproducts of the flour project. In his hand, he holds a Ball jar filled with tiny Iron and Clay peas, an heirloom variety from Looking Back Farms. Early Girl goes through about 25 pounds of dried black-eyed peas a week, which may soon be replaced with Iron and Clay peas.

Looking Back Farms recently obtained a seed-cleaner through a grant that Lapidus helped to write as part of her work with CFSA. Wheat must be cleaned before it is made into flour, and having the seed-cleaner available locally allows farmers to sell a higher-value product. Iron and Clay peas are a cover crop for wheat and, with some minor adjustments, the seed-cleaner can be used to clean the legumes, too.

"The wheat takes so much minerals out of the soil that this is one of the things that they like to put in the rotation with the wheat to replenish the soil," Stehling says, shaking the jar of tiny peas. "It's always been there and known to be a soil regenerator, but until this seed-cleaner came about, they didn't have a real way to make it available to the public. It's usually used for animal feed. Now we have a way to make it quality for human consumption, and it's organic, too."

The grants that the CFSA secured to make the seed-cleaner possible include the N.C. Market Ready Cost-Share grant and RAFI's Tobacco Reinvestment Community grant. In fact, much of the work that the bread flour project has been able to achieve has rested on a network of grants and human effort. Human effort rarely runs out before grant money.

"It's scary how much everything is reliant on grants and things like that,” Stehling acknowledges. “That's why it's so important that we become more sustainable here as a community in general. You saw two or three years ago when you couldn't get gas in Asheville? That just hurt local businesses so. You get people thinking a lot more on a local level since that's happened than they ever did before.” 

For more information about the NCOBFP: http://ncobfp.blogspot.com. Over Easy Cafe: http://overeasyasheville.com. West End Bakery: http://www.westendbakery.com. Early Girl Eatery: http://earlygirleatery.com.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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