There’s a beautiful adorable seven-month-old chlid sitting with his parents in the seats in front of me. And every other seat in the plane is full too. Welcome to the direct Seattle-Toronto Air Canada flight on Sunday September 16.
This morning in the Skagit Valley, as we started to drive south to Seattle, there was soft mist along all the contours of the landcsape, the hills and mountains that frame the valley were outlined in softly shaded blue like a Japanese watercolor, and a thick layer of pale mist obscured the wide valley, so that the hills seemed as if they were floating on a sea of mist. Lovely.
It’s always nice to head home, but I have to admit to huge regret at leaving beautiful Skagit country, and the welcoming hospitality of the people in and around Mt Vernon who hosted and animated the Kneading Conference West these last few days. Like the original Kneading Conference in Skowhegan Maine, (the sixth annual one there took place in late July) the Kneading Conference West (this was the second annual) brings together millers, bakers, farmers, oven builders, and scientists for two full days to talk about grain and bread and milling, about sustainability, the bakery business, the farming business and more; to argue and discuss many issues around all these topics; to make and taste breads and crackers and other grain products; and to build ovens.
I’ve learned a lot. And hopefully people have learned from me too. I worked with Dawn the baker, my good friend Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers, me assisting her with her two workshops, and she helping enormously with my two. We got there a full day ahead to prep and discovered at the Washington State College Ag Research Station a sense of anticipation and a wonderful preparedness.
The whole place is set in a remarkable garden like a Garden of Eden, especially at this time of year, with pears hanging heavily on beautiful espaliered trees, vegetable bed of greens and vines and more, and endless educational plantings of all kinds. Signs on the beautiful fruit trees ask visitors to please not pick the fruit (they need it intact for research purposes). And so in another way too it also had a garden of Eden feel, loaded as it was with temptation!
Our main job on that first prep day was to make plain crackers, flour and salt and water crackers, out of as many whole grain single varietal wheat flours as possible. Steve, the director of the Station milled some flours from small stocks of unusual varieties that he had available. Others we’d brought with us from Ontario, and others we took from the huge array of flours sitting in large sacks in the baking room. Along with the wheats, we had several spelt flours, an emmer, several ryes, and a barley to make into crackers. Altogether we had eighteen different samples to work with.
The idea was to have a tasting, to try to identify taste characteristics of not only different varieties but also of the same wheat grown in different locations (we did this with Red Fife, comparing three different ones; and with spelt). But to do the tasting we needed crackers to taste. That involved hand kneading and hand rolling a lot of small batches of dough. We managed to stay organised about our labelling, a good and necessary thing. And there was a four deck stack oven to bake the crackers in.
In the process of making them we discovered huge differences in the aroma of the freshly wetted flour, in the kneading and rolling out characteristics, in the taste of the fresh crackers, and then, the next day, in the taste of the day-old crackers. The session was fun, as people came up with descriptors for the tastes and aromas they discerned. It made us realise how much more we could do next time. (And it confirmed both of us about the remarkable deliciousness of Red Fife wheat.)
The tasting was perhaps equivalent to a first stab at tasting different red wines, if you had only ever drunk blended batch wines. We searched for descriptive vocabulary, and we didn’t all agree - yes, both exciting and a little daunting!
Dawn’s other workshop was a cracker one, which took place at a wood-fired oven with a big crowd. Crackers are a new idea for many people. They’re a great way to bake with whole grains and a blend of grains. But anyone who has made crackers knows that because they are very thin, they bake unevenly and thus baking can be tricky. It’s even more so when you’re working with a wood-fired oven. But Mark, the guy whose oven it was, wasn’t fased and helped make it happen without stress. We relied on him too for both my workshops, one on leavened flatbreads, and one on sweet baking with yeasted doughs.
The flatbreads were diverse: a version of snowshoe naan using yogurt and a partially whole wheat dough; a barley bread from Finland made with yogurt, pearl barley and barley flour and no wheat flour; pittili, the Pugliese loaf made with an extremely sloppy dough that is a little tricky to shape and delicious to eat; and finally, my first time out in public with a recipe from the BURMA book, the bread called nan-piar from Burma. Fun! We had a large crowd, people very interested in flatbreads and in the possibilities they represent for more flexible baking and for baking with whole grains and non-wheat flours.
The sweet baking doughs we’d made well ahead. We made one kouignaman (delish Breton butter cake) the night before, so we could have samples ready at the workshop. Then I shaped a second one in front of the crowd. We also made a cake flavoured with currants, fabulous local walnuts, and some coconut; a version of sweet anise crispbreads; and about five fruit tarts, using local fruits of course.
The tarts were a wow, topped with sliced pears (Red Crimsons) or chopped apple (can’t remember the variety right now, sorry), or sliced purple plums. There’s nothing better than a yeasted dough enriched with butter, as the base of a fruit tart. And no-one seemed to disagree. The tarts vanished down hungry gullets. No leftovers to cope with. And then the conference was over.
I should mention too the stimulating talk I heard about flour and bread science. It was much too short. I wanted to hear each aspect explored in detail. The geek in me likes to understand the minutiae; that’s how I can understand best, from the basics up. Just to give you an idea: we heard about the starch structure in wheat flour (amylose and amylopectin, as in rice), and about amylase and beta amylase; (the enzymes that break down starches). We got a glimpse of the complexities in the discussion about the temperatures at which they are most active, the interaction of proteins and starches in the absorption of water; what all of it means for the baker, and on and on. It was enthralling and left me hungry for more.
See you there next year, perhaps?