Chow Bella

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

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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."

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria