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Finding the whole meaning of flavour and flour

As interesting as it is to talk about all things food -  ethics, history, agriculture, theory, technique, nutrition - in the end, all that is culinary depends on one thing for its survival: flavour.

And recently, flavour is on my mind. Or rather, it’s all over my hands, my countertop, and in my oven. I’m talking about flour, and the flavours found therein.  

And most of the time, it’s not. Flavour in flour, that is. Because most of the time that flavour has been taken out, or is waiting for it to be added in, in the form of sugar, fat, seasoning, and yeasts. But that’s not the flavour of flour, or rather, that’s not the true flavour of the grain that provided that flour. That was being tossed aside, sold off as germ and bran, or sold in whole wheat flours that were often left on store shelves for too long, leading people to assume that whole wheat flours tasted off, of rancidity. 

I was one of those people. 

 Whole grain galette with roasted green garlic and parmesan. A test made with rye, Red Fife, and Acadia wheat strains.

Whole grain galette with roasted green garlic and parmesan. A test made with rye, Red Fife, and Acadia wheat strains.


Over the past couple years, I’ve become rather enthusiastic about whole grain flours (my Instagram feed will tell you this). To be clear, I am not against all purpose/white flour. I’m not especially interested in it’s nutritional value, or vilifying its lack thereof. I’ve baked with it. I still occasionally have a desire for it - like when I make my mother’s apple pie - and the vast majority of the recipes in my cookbook collection ask for it. Heck, I’ll probably always have a small bag of it in the house. Emphasis on the small. I’ve got more options to play with now. Spelt. Buckwheat. Corn (flour, as well as meal). Rye. Red Fife. Whole White (not whole wheat, but whole grain flour made from white wheat). And I use them all. I’m interested in seeing what I can get, and what I get are flavours.

I’m interested in flavour: how to best use it, incorporate it, present it, and highlight it.  And when it comes to flour, that flavour is a thing that you and I, and many of us have been missing out on.

I get it. The vast majority of people hear “whole grain” and think of “whole wheat.” Images and flavour memories pop up of overly dense and poorly presented bricks baked by people who care more for ethics of food than its flavour.  Both have their place in history, and good or bad, they and their elk have populated many a bread box on this continent. But to equate that with whole grains is to lose out. It’s an unfortunate - yet arguably well-intentioned - facsimile of what it can be. 

 A crew of home and professional bakers learn how to use whole grain flours at the Grain Gathering, held annually at Washington State University’s Bread Lab.

A crew of home and professional bakers learn how to use whole grain flours at the Grain Gathering, held annually at Washington State University’s Bread Lab.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to write about and travel for stories about grain, met with whole grain bakers, attended conventions and conferences about grain, and even visited a mill in California. I’ve had multiple conversations with farmers, home and professional bakers, scientists, writers, bloggers, and no matter what their angle/interest/profession, they all talk about one thing: the flavour of the grain, no matter what kind of grain it is.

They all want to understand and use that flour and its flavour in the best possible manner, as they are able to make it manifest. It’s not just about recreating or translating white flour baked goods into whole grain versions - although there is a lot of that - it’s about understanding what the grain and the flour it produces asks for. Does it need more liquid? Does it need acidity? Does it need gentle heat or a high blast? Does one fat work better than another? What liquid in the batter/dough helps it shine through? What country is this grain traditionally grown in, and how is it used? What are those baking traditions and what flavours and textures have I missed out on?

And yes, these are challenges, and challenges that a lot of bakers don’t have to contend with. But in meeting and rising above those challenges, there is so much more available to the baker, and the eater. And that’s all because of flavour. 

So over the next little while, I’ll be talking about flavour, through the lens of whole grain flours. Follow my work over at Instagram. Check out bakers who are using whole grains in your area. Here in Halifax, you’ll find Dina’s Sourdough on Novalea, and Gold Island Bakery over at the Brewery Market. I’m pretty sure you can find one in your city or town. And if you’re interested in buying/using whole grain flours, here is your challenge: learn. Learn by talking, baking, eating, making, trying, failing, and sharing. 

 Close-up of buckwheat streusel over coffee cake. I live for streusel.

Close-up of buckwheat streusel over coffee cake. I live for streusel.

Happy baking.

***

For those of you interested in whole grain baking and bakers, here is a bit of inspiration for you.

“Consider Flour as Flavour” - a story I wrote for The Globe and Mail about bakers throughout the country who are baking with whole grain flours, featuring Dawn and Ed from Evelyn’s Crackers as well as Christine Fancy from Yesteryear Baking.

A Taste for Grain - a Montreal-based grain conference who recently hosted its 3rd version.

Maine Grains Alliance - hosts of the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, this annual conference brings in people from all over North America and beyond to talk all things grain, with a focus and heart on community and grains, from economics to flavour.

The Bread Lab at Washington State University - hosts of the Grain Gathering, the Bread Lab is at the vanguard of all things grain, wether your interests are agriculture, breeding, baking, malting, or the history of grain.

Thousand Bites of Bread - Adrian is an proselytizer of all things grain, done through introductions, context, presentation and demonstrations of all things grain take on a personal touch with her, whether through her Instagram feed or her whole grain baking tours in Portland, Oregon.

Amy Halloran - Author of “The New Bread Basket,” Halloran is a self-described flour ambassador, and one of the biggest voices in grains in North America.

The Rye Baker - Stanley Ginsberg loves rye, and wants to share that love. His website and his book explain how to use rye in a manner that speaks to both amateur and professional bakers, without leaving either behind in the flour dust.