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Flour Power: Phoenix Emerges as a New Capital of Artisan Bread-Making

Since man first learned to harness the power of fire, humans have been using it to cook food. It started with an ostentatious show of roasting whole animals over an open flame -- an unabashed demonstration of how humans now possessed power over both nature and the rest of the...
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Since man first learned to harness the power of fire, humans have been using it to cook food. It started with an ostentatious show of roasting whole animals over an open flame -- an unabashed demonstration of how humans now possessed power over both nature and the rest of the animal kingdom.

As we developed increasingly complex cultures, we sought more sophisticated ways of using fire to make food.

We began to bake.

Unlike cooking meat over fire or boiling plants in a pot, baking constitutes a transformation of nature into an entirely new form, something good to eat -- bread. Ever since the advent of the art, baking has remained a fundamental skill in cultures around the world.

See also: Harvesting Native Arizona Wheat with Hayden Flour Mills

On a hot summer day in Phoenix, baker Claudio Urciuoli continues the tradition.

Dressed in a navy polo and flour­-covered light blue apron, the 44­-year-­old -- who was born in the Campania region of southern Italy and moved to Phoenix in 2006 -- squeezes and presses a ball of wet dough against a wooden table in a small commercial kitchen, his sinewy forearms flexing with the effort. These days, there are far less physically demanding ways to make bread, but Noble Bread, an artisan micro­-bakery, does things the old­-fashioned way.

These loaves, started at 9 a.m. from a starter begun more than 40 years ago, will see more than a day and a half of careful attention before they ever reach the inside of an oven.

Urciuoli isn't a masochist. He's a purist. During this day and a half, complex chemical reactions within the dough will develop structure and flavor that the baker says are impossible to accurately re­-create with chemicals and machinery.

"It's a very lengthy process you can't speed up," Urciuoli says in a thick Italian accent as he stretches and folds another lump of dough.

Not that industrial bakers don't try.

But each of the hundreds of loaves of bread Urciuoli and Noble Bread partner Jason Raducha, 30, make this week will be produced almost entirely by hand. The two bakers will touch each and every loaf, using the dough's texture to understand the proper adjustments to time and temperature, things that can't be understood by a machine.

Urciuoli worked as executive chef at top Valley restaurants and resorts before joining Noble Bread last year. He finds his new job much more rewarding. This process not only continues the legacy of the artisans before him, but also connects himself to his family's history. Flour is in his blood. He comes from a family of millers and remembers his father bringing home loaves of bread from bakers all over the Italian countryside.

Today, he and Raducha strive to bring that knowledge to the public while, at the same time, make a living. But in the face of a growing portion of the population that sees gluten -- and thus, wheat and bread -- as enemies of good health, it sometimes seems they're fighting a losing battle.

Amid the current trend of gluten intolerance, it seems impossible for health enthusiasts to have their bread and eat it, too. But the other side is gaining steam. The fissure between those who believe gluten is the root of all health evils and those fighting to restore bread to its rightful place on the food pyramid seems to grow wider with every passing meal.

"Now everyone is re-­interested," Urciuoli says matter of factly as he works another loaf. "But, you know, it's an ancient thing."

We are in the midst of a war on wheat.

The food that once was a symbol of prosperity and good health has become one of the most divisive items on mankind's menu. It didn't happen overnight.

You could say the root of the wheat conflict dates back to 1975, when Walter Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet, one of the earliest books supporting what's now known as the Paleo Diet. Voegtlin's book saw moderate success but was overshadowed during the '80s and '90s by the Atkins diet. Paleo didn't really take off until the mid­-2000s, thanks to another book, The Paleo Diet,written by Dr. Loren Cordain.

These diets advocate high­-protein/low-­carb eating and avoiding processed foods -- specifically on the Paleo, which also encourages eating as the cavemen did by avoiding grains, legumes, and dairy. None specifically target gluten, per se.

That didn't happen until Dr. William Davis' book Wheat Belly hit shelves -- and rocketed to the top of the Best Sellers List -- in 2011. In it, Davis makes several claims against gluten and wheat. And despite the fact that none of his findings have much scientific support to stand on, the damage was done.

It's estimated that nearly a quarter of Americans either eat gluten­-free or have someone in their household who does.

Some of these people do so out of medical necessity, often because they suffer from celiac disease. The disorder, which restricts the body's ability to digest gluten, is estimated to affect about 1 percent of the world's population.

Another segment of gluten­-free eaters may have non-­celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), though there's no medical test to identify the condition.

The rest of the anti­gluten camp consists of people who avoid gluten, sometimes militantly, by choice.

The problem is that avoiding gluten means cutting out everything containing wheat, barley, and rye. And the biggest source of wheat in our diet is bread.

"It's interesting because actually we love wheat," says Glenn Gaesser, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Nutrition. "It's just that because wheat is the major source of gluten, it's taken on this negative connotation.'"

Anti-­gluten, anti-­wheat, and anti-­bread consumers seek increased gluten­-free options at both grocery stores and restaurants. The demand is so high that the gluten­-free food and beverage market is expected to top $15 billion in 2016. Chefs and restaurant owners, overwhelmed with the sudden demand and restrictions, have taken to social media to voice their frustrations.

Chrysa Robertson, whose Scottsdale restaurant Rancho Pinot has been open for more than 10 years, says she faces anti-­gluten diners every night.

The notoriously tough-­as-­nails, outspoken chef has voiced her annoyance about picky, gluten­-free diners on Facebook more than once -- sometimes using a few choice words she'd unlikely repeat in the restaurant's dining room.

It's not the first time she's had to deal with fad diets, and her staff is trained to handle dietary restrictions, she says. But with so many foods containing the protein, it's difficult to make adjustments, particularly for so many people at once.

"Everybody does the same thing all at the same time," Robertson says. "But I think everyone is making way too much out of this."

As an alternative, some look to the artisan bread scene. Comprising bakers, wheat growers, and millers, this group says returning to the traditional ways of making bread could help solve some health problems.

The gluten-­loving camp says it might be modern baking and wheat that are the problem. In order to shorten baking times and produce cheaper bread, modern industrial bakers rely on hybrid wheat created in the 1960s that's less flavorful and less nourishing than ancient strains.

They compensate for the lack of flavor and nutrients with chemical additives including high-­fructose corn syrup, ammonium sulfate, and ascorbic acid. It could be any of these ingredients or any of the dozens of other chemicals commonly used in modern wheat growing, rather than gluten, that is to blame for some digestive problems.

Getting back to the traditional way of making bread -- slowly and with a small number of ingredients -- may be the only way to test that theory.

The trouble is that getting back to the traditional way of making bread means reviving an entire grain food system lost decades ago.

It's a slow process, but people are beginning to rebuild. There are several grain movements under way in cities from coast to coast, including a particularly robust one in Phoenix.

You can trace the roots of the local movement back to Jeff Zimmerman, a jack of all trades who purchased the historic Hayden Flour Mills (the original mill operated on Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe from 1918 to 1998) name with the dream of bringing fresh flour back to Arizona. When he started, he had neither seeds nor a mill -- let alone a space to start a business.

And then Zimmerman met baker Marco Bianco, brother to world-­famous pizzaiolo Chris Bianco, at a local food conference. Marco, a self­-taught baker, had been making bread for his brother's restaurants for years. Zimmerman's dream piqued his interest. He connected Zimmerman with Chris, who had always been passionate about using local ingredients in his food.

Eventually, Zimmerman found both heritage grain seeds and an Austrian stone mill, which Chris Bianco let him house in the back of one of his restaurants. The company has been based out of Pane Bianco in Central Phoenix ever since, milling hundreds of pounds of local heritage flour a week and even planting several acres of wheat at nearby Steele Indian School Park.

Right now, only a handful of these traditional stone flour mills exist in the United States and at least two are here.

The second is located at Agritopia in Gilbert, where farmer Erich Schultz is growing ancient grains and milling flour on a small commercial stone mill from Germany. He plans to sell wheat berries directly to customers, who will be able to mill their own fresh flour at the farm's weekly market. Such a mill would be one of a kind in the Valley.

And yet, none of it is going to reach many consumers until prices come down.

For now, heritage grain flour is expensive, too pricey for most production­-scale bakers to use exclusively. Instead, bakers including Urciuoli and Raducha and Don Guerra of Barrio Bread in Tucson supplement local flour with other organic flours purchased from out of state. Doing so keeps prices down while still allowing the bakers to avoid using flour made from modern hybridized wheat.

Still, a loaf of Noble Bread costs $7, triple the price of a loaf of white Wonder Bread and double the price of a loaf from a grocery store bakery. And unlike Noble's product, which is available mainly at weekly farmers markers, you can buy those loaves of bread any day at almost any time.

The high cost of heritage grain flour hasn't stopped home bakers from experimenting on a small scale. Often connecting through social media, a growing community of bread enthusiasts shares advice, photos, and, sometimes, ingredients. They include people like Mandy Bublitz, a self­taught home baker from Chandler who uses local flour to bake bread several times a week.

"My goal is that I want to use as much local flour as possible," Bublitz says. "I love that I can drive by a wheat field and know that, at some point, I can bake with that flour."

The bread bug also has bitten some local chefs. Country Velador of Cowboy Ciao and Super Chunk Sweets and Treats in Scottsdale has begun baking long­-fermented loaves, sweet Hawaiian bread, and cinnamon roll crunch brioche for practice and fun. James Beard Award­-nominated chef Charleen Badman of FnB grew a small amount of heritage wheat in her home garden this year.

Local filmmaker JD McLelland, who lives at Agritopia, has been working on a grain­focused documentary for more than two years. When it's released later this fall, The Grain Divide will explain the history and discuss the future of grain through some of the key players in the national grain movement. The documentary will feature top baker Chad Robertson, grain advocate Monica Spiller, and a slew of Arizona stars, including the Biancos and Erich Schultz.

There's still a long way to go before the traditional grain food chain is restored -- if it ever can be. But growing enthusiasm about wheat, flour, and bread can't be ignored.

"Will we ever have people who start saying, 'I'm going to start growing heritage grains?' No, I don't think so, " Jeff Zimmerman acknowledges. "But could the heritage grain movement save the world? Maybe."

The story of bread goes all the way back to the Stone Age, when people first mixed water with ground cereal grains and cooked the gruel to make unleavened bread.

Archeological evidence indicates the Egyptians used yeast to leaven their bread as early as 4000 BC. They were some of the first people to master the art of fermentation, harnessing its power to produce both beer and raised loaves of bread, which became food staples in their society.

By 1000 BC, wheat had made its way to Europe, including to the Roman Empire, where the first bakers guild was established around 168 BC.

It wasn't until the late 1600s that wheat arrived in North America by way of the Spanish missionaries traveling north from Mexico. They brought with them a particular type of wheat called White Sonora, the first variety to arrive on the North American continent.

Arizona's native people grew this type of wheat. It's a drought-­resistant strain and low in gluten content, making it ideal for making tortillas. Until the second half of the 20th century, White Sonora wheat was a predominant crop in both the Sonora region and California.

In the 1960s, scientists bred new hybrid strains of wheat with shorter stalks and larger heads. Shorter stalks are less likely to fall, ensuring their harvestability by mechanical combine. Larger heads, which are too heavy to support without shorter and fatter stalks, translate to higher wheat production.

These scientific advancements became known as the Green Revolution, and this type of semi­-dwarf, high-­yielding wheat is still used to make most flour today. Heritage grains became harder and harder to find.

By the time of the Green Revolution, pre-­sliced white bread from an industrial bakery -- yes, Wonder Bread -- had become standard in American households. It was convenient and cheap but made in a completely different way from traditional bread.

Whereas artisan bakers might be able to produce a few hundred loaves a day using dough that had to be fermented for hours, if not overnight, an industrial bakery can produce thousands of loaves a day with dough that needs to ferment only an hour or two.

The shorter production time is possible thanks only to the dozens of additives you see on the label of a typical loaf of grocery store bread. Flip one over and you'll often find more than a dozen ingredients, including high-­fructose corn syrup for flavor, niacin to fortify the bread with nutrients, and sodium aluminum sulfate, a chemical leavening agent.

Traditionally, bread contains only four ingredients: water, flour, salt, and yeast.

Of course, artisan baking never quite disappeared. But now it's seeing a resurgence driven in part by the very trend that threatens the popularity of its product.

"In the end, it all comes down to this mill, one mill," says Ben Butler.

He sits on a stool, one arm resting on an archaic-­looking machine in a small back room of Pane Bianco in Central Phoenix.

The Osttiroler Getreidemühlen mill, one of only a few in the Southwest, came to Phoenix by way of Austria. The hulking piece of machinery is made almost entirely of pinewood, except for the two 300­-pound stones responsible for slicing wheat berries into fine flour.

It is the heart of the whole Hayden Flour Mills operation, yet it barely fits inside the room that's been its home for the past three years.

"Even small orders make it crazy because it's all happening on this little machine with one person," Butler says.

He's referring to himself. During the busy season, the bearded, blue-­eyed young miller might spend 50 hours a week in this room turning bags of wheat berries into soft, white flour. The space once was a roomy office for the restaurant but now serves as one of the hot spots of the local bread movement: It's home to one of the city's best artisan bakers, Marco Bianco, and one of the city's only flour mills.

The fact that the milling company has outgrown the room is a testament to how far it's come. The space was an invaluable contribution from Chris Bianco when Hayden Flour Mills was starting out.

Or rather, starting over.

Charles Hayden founded the original Hayden Flour Mills in 1874. For more than a century, until it went out of business in 1998, the company name was synonymous with its most popular flour brand, Arizona Rose. The most recently built Hayden Flour Mills factory (two previous ones were lost in fires) still sits vacant on the north end of Mill Avenue in Tempe.

For many Arizonans, both the structure and the company name evoke strong memories, so when Jeff Zimmerman found the Hayden Flour Mill brand name hadn't been renewed in years, he bought it for himself with the plan to bring freshly milled flour back to the state.

Though not a farmer, Zimmerman grew up on a farm in North Dakota, where his family raised chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows and grew crops such as grains, soybeans, and corn. He worked in the tech industry -- a fitting career for such a natural innovator -- but speaks knowledgeably and eloquently about all things wheat.

He wanted to get back to his childhood food ways, and while he already was able to get heirloom tomatoes, free-range chickens, and grass­-fed beef, he couldn't find what he needed to get fresh flour. He began to wonder why no one was talking about bringing back ancient types of wheat.

"Over time, we started to see that there were people all over the country asking the same question," he says.

Research eventually led him to Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina. Roberts, a pioneer of the heritage grain movement, had been growing the original grains of the South since 2000 as part of a larger effort to revive the 19th-­century cuisine of the coastal and midland Carolinas and Georgia.

Zimmerman also found similar grain­-focused projects in places including New York, northern California, and Washington State.

Clearly, the idea of milling fresh flour wasn't crazy. But before he could join the movement, he would need seeds.

That breakthrough came thanks to Native Seeds/Search, a nonprofit in Tucson, and renowned agricultural ecologist and writer Gary Nabhan. They introduced Zimmerman to White Sonora wheat and helped get him seeds for growing.

"Charles Hayden was using White Sonora wheat in his mill," Zimmerman says. "So if you wanted to grow heritage, White Sonora would go back as far as you could go, at least for North America."

By 2012, Hayden Flour Mills had harvested its first crop of locally grown heritage grain. But finding farmers willing to take a risk on crops that hadn't been grown on a production scale for decades hadn't been easy. Zimmerman knew these ancient grains would never yield as much wheat as modern hybrids, a huge disincentive to farmers.

Zimmerman needed someone devoted to the cause.

About an hour south of Central Phoenix, Steve Sossaman still lives and farms the homestead his family has had since the early 1900s. On the 800­acre farm, Sossaman mainly grows alfalfa, but about 30 acres contains more than a half- dozen varieties of heritage grains for Hayden Flour Mills.

On a hot day in late June, Sossaman drives around a field of alfafa in his red pickup, classical music blaring from the speakers. He arrives at a recently plowed field of wheat and seeks out some of the few remaining heads of wheat berries on the edges of the field. He cradles them in his palm, explaining that the field had to be harvested before the summer rains could ruin the crop.

"This project endeavors to bring back the flavor of wheat," Sossaman says, looking out at the field. "We're trying to do something really special here, and it's working."

In addition to White Sonora, Sossaman and a small number of other farmers around the state grew several varieties of heritage grains this year, including three types of purple barley, a red wheat from Russia, and a Blue Beard durum wheat from Ethiopia. Some of the harvests are too small for production; this year's crop will go toward planting next season. Sometimes it can take years before the growers have enough seed for a production­-size crop.

The good news is that Arizona's climate lends itself well to growing wheat, making it easier for farmers like Sossaman to slowly bring back ancient grains. The next big step in reviving the grain food system will be bringing the three parts of the wheat food chain together.

"It's a three­-legged stool: There's the grower and there's the miller and there's the baker," Sossaman says. "Right now, they're scattered all over the country. We're the first ones to do it all together."

Within the next few months, Hayden Flour Mills will move out of the back room at Pane Bianco and into a new building on Sossaman's farm. Standing in the middle of the unfinished structure, Sossaman lays out the space where two additional stone flour mills will go. The new mills and the current Hayden Flour Mills mill will be visible through a window, he says. The building also will house a sort of grain­-tasting room, which eventually will be open to the public for tours and educational opportunities.

"You're at ground zero right here," he says, stepping out of the building into what will be a covered patio.

That space will offer a wood-­fired oven where local artisan bakers will come and test new flours to help Zimmerman decide which grains to grow and in what quantities. It's a huge step for their company and the movement.

"I want this to be a model for other parts of this country," Sossman says.

"I get so many calls for gluten­-free flour, and I'm like, "'No, we love gluten! It's all gluten everywhere!'" laughs Emma Zimmerman. "But I think it's helped us out in some ways because people are so much more aware."

Emma, Jeff Zimmerman's daughter, takes care of Hayden Flour Mills' sales and, thus, spends the most time interacting with chefs and other customers. She knows firsthand about the battle between bread lovers and their anti-gluten counterparts, those who say that going gluten­-free leads to better health and weight loss.

And though anecdotal evidence of the gluten-­free diet's success abounds, ASU professor Glenn Gaesser, who has been doing research on grains for more than a decade, says the scientific proof just isn't there.

"Americans are historically very nutrition-­dumb and gullible, so virtually anything can fly in terms of weight­loss gimmicks and diets," he says. "So gluten­-free became very faddish."

From a scientific standpoint, the gluten-­free diet is a treatment for celiac disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that impacts the small intestine. For those affected by the disease, eating gluten can have severe health consequences, including skin rash, seizures, and depression.

It's estimated it affects about 1 percent of the population, though there has been no extensive research on the disease.

Another 5 percent to 6 percent may have gluten sensitivity or an allergy to the protein. But unlike those with celiac disease, which can be definitively identified through a blood test, there's no scientific way to identify gluten sensitivity.

Most cases are self­-diagnosed by people who find that eliminating gluten from their diets has led to feeling better.

The scientific community, including Gaesser, has doubts as to whether it's really gluten that's to blame.

"I don't doubt for a minute that people might temporarily feel better," he says. "But that could be purely psychological. And it could be because they're cutting out wheat."

According to Gaesser, there haven't been long-­term studies about the effects of a gluten­-free diet on those who have neither celiac disease nor a confirmed gluten-sensitivity.

In other words, for the vast majority of the population, a gluten-­free diet could have no health benefits at all.

One new theory is that it may actually be fermentable oligo­, di­, mono­saccharides and polyols, or FODMAPS, that are the culprit. These short-­chain carbohydrates aren't completely absorbed by the digestive system and have been shown in a scientific study to cause gastrointestinal distress in people with irritable bowl syndrome.

It is still unclear whether that means they could be harming other groups or the general population, Gaesser says.

Scientific basis or not, the gluten-­free trend doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. From 2011 to 2013, the industry grew by 44 percent, and it's expected to reach total sales of $1.5 billion by 2016.

"How this will play out, I don't know," Gaesser says. "My guess is that it will play out naturally. It will peak and then it will wane eventually."

Back at Noble Bread, Claudio Urciuoli and Jason Raducha prepare to bake.

They remove hundreds of loaves shaped the day before from a walk­in fridge. Overnight, the bacteria and yeast within the dough have been hard at work breaking down carbohydrates into carbon dioxide. The gas causes the dough to expand by about a third of its original size.

Urciuoli and Raducha wait for the loaves to reach room temperature before they finally put them into the nearly 400­ degree oven.

"I didn't have much of a future to look at" as a kid, Urciuoli says with a furrowed brow and slight frown as he waits for the loaves to warm. He'd never been fond of academics but had fostered a deep connection to food, making culinary school a logical route.

"I had to do something with my hands," he says.

Right now, those hands are covered with flour, as is his blue apron. Today, the men are working in a hot back room that houses their micro­-bakery's oven. Even standing on the far side of the large space you can feel the intense heat radiating from the oven. The only relief comes from standing directly in front of a large floor fan.

"The craft of being a farmer, a butcher, a baker -- the new generation doesn't want to do that," Urciuoli concludes, standing near the oven and keeping an eye on the loaves inside.

Once removed from the oven, each bears the same pattern on its crust, two S‐shaped gashes where the dough was scored just before being baked. The black edges of the grooves jut up at an almost 90-­degree angle from the surface of the bread. They're called "ears," and their significant height is an indication of the quality of the bread.

The part of the loaf where the dough is sliced reveals a golden portion of crust that's rough with ridges and divots.

This fibrous surface tells the trained eye that this bread has strong gluten structure. The color of the rest of the crust fluctuates between powdery white and a rich cognac brown. The variety of colors indicates a diversity of flavor. The small bubbles that punctuate the crust reveal that the dough was fermented slowly, over a long period of time.

Urciuoli and Raducha know the average customer won't recognize these nuances. Somewhere along the line -- probably at the advent of processed white flour and industrial bread -- the majority of us lost our appreciation for the craft of baking.

Bakers, millers, and others in the artisan bread and heritage wheat movements just hope we don't end up turning our backs on bread altogether -- though it's hard to fight against the anti­-wheat supporters with products that are still expensive to the average consumer.

Even with Hayden Flour Mills' new location and expansion to three mills instead of one, Jeff Zimmerman admits prices for their heritage grain flour probably won't be going down. Up to this point, the company barely has turned a profit. That means it will be some time until flour made from locally grown heritage grains will be affordable enough for bakers to use. That is, if it ever becomes that cheap.

The one undeniable thing they do have working in their favor is history.

E­mail [email protected].

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