Minnesota Spoon: Back to the Stone Age with Twin Cities bakers embracing Old World traditions

Breads baked at Baker's Field in Northeast Minneapolis // Photo by Wing Ta

Breads baked at Baker’s Field in Northeast Minneapolis // Photo by Wing Ta

If you’ve ever gotten used to the taste of Folgers coffee—as I have, intermittently, during life’s dark stretches—and then opened a bag of just-ground, freshly roasted coffee beans, you will understand my state of mind last Friday, as I walked into the production room of Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, in Northeast Minneapolis’s Food Building.

Baker’s Field is founded on the deceptively simple notion that, in a place that calls itself Mill City, where we once ground more tons of grain per day than any other single spot on the planet, and in an era of increasing leeriness over what industry has done with our food, perhaps a small-scale stone mill, grinding local, organic grains into flour, then baking them into naturally fermented bread, might be an idea worth considering.

The idea was Steve Horton’s, who had recently handed over his beloved firstborn, Rustica Bakery, to a business partner, in order to adopt this new love child. And what he encountered next was not the embrace of a city grateful to have a part of its mythology restored, but a statute that said, in short, “Not so fast.” Steve could maybe apply for a conditional use permit, but technically city law forbade building a mill in Northeast Minneapolis—a few blocks from the river that had powered the mills that built the city in the first place. Sort of like an ordinance placing height restrictions on buildings in lower Manhattan.

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The statute served as a tiny, unwitting symbol of a broader problem facing most small producers of high-quality food—namely, a broken reward system that, to oversimplify only slightly, clears wide economic and regulatory paths that make large-scale conventional farming, and industrial food production easier, while small, artisanal producers, already handicapped by the economics of scale, are mostly left to hack their own way through the tangled underbrush of confusing and often nonsensical laws and regulations.

The stone mill at Baker's Field // Photo by Wing Ta

The stone mill at Baker’s Field // Photo by Wing Ta

To wit:

Stone milling wheat, which leaves much of the germ and bran in the resulting flour, is almost universally acknowledged as more nutritious than industrial roller milling, which removes the germ and bran entirely, then tries to add nutrients back after the fact. Sort of like piecing Humpty Dumpty back together again and marketing him as “enriched.”

Conventional wheat production is deeply dependent on pesticides, because short modern wheat hybrids (which are easier to machine harvest) don’t grow tall enough to shade out unwelcome competition. Ancient and heritage wheat varieties tend to grow tall enough to make organic production more feasible.

Large scale mills bring in wheat from all over the country, and send their finished product long distances, making most flour a carbon-intensive product, based just on the shipping distances necessary to get a five-pound bag of all-purpose Gold Medal to your grocery store.

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The smaller batches and shorter distances involved in local milling put a fresher, and, by definition, better-tasting product on the shelves.

An eminently sensible solution, then, would be to grind a mix of locally grown, mostly organic grains, in a stone mill, a short drive from the retail locations where the flour would be sold.

It was such a sensible solution in fact, that they wrote laws discouraging it.

Fortunately, Steve Horton fought City Hall and won. Or, more accurately, given the extreme gentility of his mild-mannered persistence, Steve Horton joined hands with City Hall to find a mutually agreeable solution, in a spirit of reason and common cause—and we all won.

Even so, the process of changing the ordinance took over a year, and it must have used up all but the very last shreds of Steve’s politeness, to have to work so hard to create something that made such laughably perfect sense, and that nobody didn’t want.

 

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