Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Friday, June 09, 2006

Dill, flour in my bread

Fresh dill has found its way into our farmers market this season. I love it added to Simply in Season’s spring Sausage and Greens Soup. To use my leftover fresh dill recently I made a couple loaves of Dill Bread, a moist, savory, company-quality yeast bread from the summer chapter. Paired with some good cheese and fruit, it makes a fabulous picnic lunch.

In my bread, I know where the sprinkle of dill comes from. Local herbs, fruits and vegetables, meats, eggs and even cheeses are all readily available at our farmers market and various nearby farm stands. A number of market stands sell wonderful artisan breads. But where’s the flour? Where does it come from?

I was struck by the account from the couple in British Columbia who “wasted away” early in their year-long experience of eating nothing but foods grown within 100 miles (see the article about them in USA Today or find your own 100-mile radius at

We were unable to find any locally grown grains-no more bread, pasta, or rice. The only starch left to us was the potato. Between us, we lost about 15 pounds in six weeks. While I appreciated the beauty and creativity of James' turnip sandwich, with big slabs of roasted turnip as the ‘bread,’ this innovation did little to stave off the constant hunger. James' jeans hung down his butt like a skater boy. He told me I had no butt left at all.
Then came the May article in our local co-op’s newsletter, which researched the source of various foods in the bulk department. “It is difficult to trace the specific source of wheat because such high-volume commodities are blended from across the country, but flours at First Alternative come from U.S.-grown wheat; whole wheat high-protein flour is milled in San Francisco and white flour in Minneapolis. . . . Hard red winter wheat comes from Utah.”

Those 100-mile adventurers eventually found a (small) local grain source, but here you wouldn’t think it’d be so hard. Oregon produces a lot of wheat, mostly in the drier, eastern part of the state. In 2005 wheat was Oregon’s sixth highest value commodity, and it’s number three on our list of top export crops. According to the Oregon Wheat Commission, 85 to 90 percent of Oregon wheat is exported and most of it ends up in Asia.

You see, this is soft white wheat: the kind used in noodles, flatbreads and quick breads. The yeast breads we eat here use hard red wheat varieties that grow well further east.

Both the organic and conventional pastry flours from Bob’s Red Mill up the valley near Portland are made from soft white wheat from Oregon and Washington. The good folks at Oregon Tilth led me to Azure Farm, a 2,000-acre organic wheat and cattle ranch in the foothills east of Mount Hood. Their website tells the story of how the family stopped using chemical pesticides and fertilizers and gradually saw the soil increase in health. Under the name Azure Standard the business now markets a wide variety of organic products all over the country. But yes: they do mill and sell their own flours locally.

What makes our farm different from most other wheat farms is our growing practices. We’ve been growing organically for over 25 years, and are attempting to go beyond basic ‘organic’ (which only ensures which harmful things have not been used). We try to keep up with organic soil amendments that will actually improve our soil, and consequently improve the food itself.
You just gotta love it when farmers rhapsodize about their soil. Here’s another from the Pacific Northwest: “I'm positively giddy about the health of my soil.”

That was from a farmer with Shepherd’s Grain, an association of about 10 farms in Washington, Idaho and Oregon which are certified with Food Alliance. That doesn’t necessarily mean organic, but it does mean strong commitment to sustainable agriculture. (Check out the Hot Lips Pizza site -- which buys all their flour from Shepherd’s Grain -- for a terrific photo of these farmers.)

For people interested in reducing the distances our food has traveled, it’s just good to know there are options. Another example that’s been sticking in my mind recently was that other kitchen canister staple: sugar. In her book Full Moon Feast, Jessica Prentice describes how raw sugar is processed in Maui, shipped by tanker to California where it is refined, then shipped to New York to be packaged. By the time those little packets end up back on Hawaiian tables, that sugar has traveled more than 10,000 miles.

I’d like to know that my flour hasn’t had to go such distances.

I chatted recently with a friend who has been experimenting with growing wheat for his own family’s use at his home in the Oregon coast range. They’ve found that soft wheat works fine for the sourdough breads they like to bake in their wood-fired cob oven. ("Bread machines, no.")

When I listen to the process of sowing, harvesting and threshing the grain (then separating the wheat from the chaff by throwing handfuls from one end of a long tarp to the other) -- wow, I have to be grateful for the farmers and systems that bring me those precious bags of flour.

I’m going to have to think more about which I choose to buy. (And with sugar, a question is how much I use. Maybe it’s time to really experiment with using more honey.) Both flour and sugar are growing edges for me in my own journey with local foods.

Here’s a new hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, “Where Is Bread?”


At 4:07 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Cathleen, thanks for the post. I had kept up with the 100-mile series last year, too, and when I found locally grown and milled flour (and cornmeal, and oats, too!) at the local farmers' market last September, I was thrilled!

Along with honey, can you find locally-produced maple syrup or sugar, too? I can find the honey and syrup at the market, but haven't yet found local maple sugar... would love that, as I've found it substitutes very well for regular sugar, and I don't need to use as much!

Am enjoying your blog as much as I did your cookbook!

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Cathleen said...

Many thanks for your comment!

That's terrific that maple syrup and grains are all available at your market. I don't think I've seen a source of Northwest maple syrup. I wonder if that kind of tree doesn't grow well here or if it's an issue how how much sap would flow in our very temperate climate. I'll have to go look at our co-op and see what kinds of sweeteners it carries and where they're from.

The book I mentioned earlier, Full Moon Feast, has a great chapter about sweeteners. This was the bit of history I found most fascinating:

“It is interesting to note that as the outrage over slavery grew among northern settlers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, maple sugar came to be seen as a socially responsible alternative to the refined cane sugar being imported from the Caribbean. An 1803 farmer’s almanac exhorts: ‘Prepare for making maple sugar, which is more pleasant and patriotic than that ground by the hand of slavery, and boiled down by the heat of misery’; and in 1805: ‘Make your own sugar, and send not to the Indies for it. Feast not on the toil, pain and misery of the wretched.’ A historian of Vermont said of maple sugar that it had ‘two important recommendations. It is the product of our own state, and it is never tinctured with the sweat, and the groans, and the tears, and the blood of the poor slave.’ Choosing food based on social conscience and with a preference for locally grown ingredients is nothing new” (pp. 26-27).

Huh! Cheers -- Cathleen

At 11:25 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks for sharing the quote... I had never heard that before! That, combined with a friend's rapturous memories of working in a sugar shack, gives me a better appreciation for maple syrup. I was sort of surprised to find local syrup here in Ohio, but I am definitely not complaining!

Good luck finding other local sweeteners!


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