King Arthur Flour’s 100% Vermont Bread
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
Wheat breeding for the past century has focused almost exclusively on high-yielding varieties suited to the climates of the Midwest and West, not to New England. Due to our thin and rocky soils, hilly lands, and increasingly wet summers, Vermont wheats don’t have the easy virtues of wheats grown in the Midwest; one might kindly describe them as developmentally challenged. For a long time, this served as an impediment to bakers, and breads were rarely baked exclusively from Vermont grains.
But that situation has changed in recent years, thanks to improved communication between local bakers like myself and Vermont farmers growing wheat, such as Ken Van Hazinga of Orwell, Ben Gleason of Bridport, and Jack Lazor of Westfield (who are also milling their wheat on-farm). We also have a better understanding of how to handle these weaker Vermont flours in a way that still yields high-quality bread. As a result of all this communication and knowledge, King Arthur’s first all-Vermont wheat loaf, which we call Vermont Grains Bread, debuted in the fall of last year, using flour from the farmers named above, as well as from Tom Kenyon of Charlotte.
Having baked in Vermont since 1983, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a great number of people connected to the small but stimulating world of baking. A year and a half ago, that network of people expanded in a most exciting way when I joined the Northern Grain Growers Association. NGGA is comprised of Vermont grain growers, crop scientists from the University of Vermont, and a few Vermont bakers. Among other things, NGGA is actively engaged in the planting of dozens of test plots of heirloom and modern wheat varieties; after harvesting, the plantings are assessed based on yield, disease resistance, and suitability to our growing conditions. Finally, it’s the bakers who test the varieties—after all, the truth comes out of the oven. No final conclusions about a variety’s suitability can be made until it passes the bake test.
One of the best things about this fellowship of NGGA members is that the bakers are getting a better understanding of the practical and logistical realities facing Vermont grain farmers, and the farmers are becoming more aware of the rheological and performance requirements of bakers who are seeking to make good bread. As a result of these synergies, the quality of locally grown bread wheats is improving steadily. The bakers have made considerable advances in understanding the characteristics of Vermont-grown wheat, and how to coax the maximum flavor, aroma, nutritional quality, and visual beauty from them. The crop scientists have closed the loop with their research into diseases, soil fertility, and varietal suitability for our climate.
I have always enjoyed a deep curiosity about bread, and a commitment to the gradual but steady increase in my knowledge and skill as a baker. I hope I have been able to impart some of those values to the bakers at the King Arthur Flour Bakery, with whom I share the work bench. When I announced that I wanted to develop a new bread that contained only Vermont-grown grains, there was an enthusiastic response from the bakers. We knew from the outset that we wanted the bread to be both organic and naturally leavened (with no added bakers yeast). And even though working with whole wheat flour is generally more difficult than working with white flour, we were committed from the start to making a loaf that contained more than 50 percent whole wheat. The goal was to produce bread having acceptable lightness, excellent nutrition, and full robust flavor from the freshly milled wheat.
There were challenges along the way, requiring us to pay careful attention to all aspects of production: the method for ripening the sourdough, the mixing process, the dough consistency, the length of proof time, the oven temperature, and even the amount of steam we injected into the oven. Ultimately, after several iterations, we developed a bread with consistently good volume and great eating and keeping qualities. What delicious bread it is, thanks in part to the abundance of freshly milled whole wheat flour in the loaves, which also contributes so much to the bread’s fine nutrition.
We bake our wonderful Vermont Grains Bread each Tuesday and Friday at the King Arthur Flour Bakery, and sell it at our retail bakery in Norwich, the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction, and the Hanover and Lebanon Co-ops in New Hampshire. Apologies—we intentionally keep our products close to home, and consequently our distribution is as local as possible. The bread is gaining in popularity every week; if you would like a loaf from our bakery, it’s a good idea to call a few days ahead and order one.
It’s our intention that we will continue baking this loaf well into the future. The farmers have their eyes set on the seasons, the possibilities, and possible setbacks. The bakers receive the fruits of their labor and bake with commitment and smiles. This joining of our labors is uniting us in the shared humanity that has characterized our collective agricultural experience for millennia.
Photo by Jeffrey Hamelman