BLOG.Notes from the Field
When Michael Pollan visited SHED earlier this year in support of his new book Cooked, he joked about the experience of shaking master baker Chad Robertson's hand. Michael hesitated to wash his own hands later, thinking that perhaps, just maybe, something magical and yeasty from Chad might have translated. Something he could use in his own bread to bring it even halfway to the greatness that the Tartine Bakery, which Chad co-owns with wife Elizabeth Pruitt, daily achieves.
But as became clear when Chad talked about his new book, Tartine No. 3, with our own Lora Zarubin at SHED on Sept. 14, 2014, it takes more than a mere handshake to glean some of his mojo. Chad is a man obsessed, a fermentation geek and a chemistry nerd whose experiments just happen to be delicious.
What he experiments with in No. 3 are whole grains. But he doesn't just do a straight trade with white flour recipes for its browner cousin. Rather, he deconstructs and then reassembles the very nature of bread's essence using many whole ancient grains which now rarely feed us. Moreover, he ferments. Anyone who proofs yeast engages in the fermentation process, but the secret to Tartine Bakery bread is in the length, the delirious lassitude, of the ferment. Chad regularly lets his loaves rise for 10 to 12 hours before baking.
Of course, certain grains have fallen out of favor for understandable reasons: they're difficult to bake with and require clever work-arounds to make edible, let alone delicious. Chad and his team — including head baker Richard Hart, who was onsite at SHED to assist — regularly make what they call "porridges" from "difficult" regional grains.
Inspired by René Redzepi's work with ancient Nordic grains for his world-renowned restaurant NOMA and emboldened by the superior team he had in the kitchen, Chad took his essential recipes and reimagined them for an older larder. One a pharaoh might recognize.
Remembering Chad as a "surfer/baker dude" in Pt. Reyes when he and wife Elizabeth first opened their Bay Village Breads Bakery out there over a decade ago, Lora asked Chad about the impetus of this newest cookbook, the third in his series emanating from Tartine Bakery's work.
"It started as another bread book and then went into pastries," Chad said. "I knew there was more we could do with whole grain pastries." He added, "I was getting slightly tired with the taste of white flour. I wanted to go back with my team and see what we could imagine, rather than just swappping out the white flour.
"We didn't go back to the drawing board," Chad stressed. "We went to our basic way of making breas and adjusted from that. We deconstructed it, trying different grains, particularly those without gluten, to incorporate into the breads. We made porridges and tried sprouting grains to discover new ways."
Chad discussed growing up in the French pain levain tradition and living in France with Elizabeth, who has gluten-intolerance, yet could eat the bread without distress. Broke and baking, bread is something they ate without cease. When they returned to the U.S., her discomfort and symptoms returned and she had to stop eating bread again.
"That was the 20-year question for me," Chad said. "Why could she eat bread there and not here?"
He came to understand that fermentation probably has a lot to do with it, meaning that the way bread is produced might indicate whether it will cause upset to someone who has difficulty processing gluten (unrelated to celiac disease). "We were already making bread that gluten-intolerant people could eat," Chad says. "We just didn't know it."
Heritage, ancient, whole grains have less gluten than the enriched white flour that forms the basis of most modern bread today. They're also extermely versatile, as Chad's team discovered during the year that they devised and tested recipes for the book.
"Our goals was to show the range of possibilities," Chad said. "We stopped at 10 recipes for porridge, for example, but we could have gone on and on."
Other questions included whether his bread is affected by place (not unless he's using local flour, in which case it adds its own terroir); if he prefers high-tech or wood-fired ovens (he loves them both for different reasons but misses working so much with fire); when his Tokyo store will open (mid-year, 2015); does fresh-milled flour affect the taste? (yes, it's like the difference between fresh ground pepper and a box of the dusty stuff from the store); does he collaborate with any farmers (he works closely with the Bread Lab at the University of Washington, which is experimenting with 40,000 different grain varieties); what's the best way to keep your sourdough starter alive when you're on vacation (either spread it out on a piece of parchment paper set on a cookie sheet and let it air dry while you're gone or take a small amount and add a lot of flour, until the consistency is like Play-Doh — that slows the starter down vastly and it can be reconstituted upon return); how to get airy bread (be careful with your preshape molding: the tighter you make the bread, the less air holes you'll get); and what he would do if he didn't bake (restaurant owners and trained chefs, he and Elizabeth would cook).
What should home bakers take away from the book, Lora asked.
"A lot of people don't know how to use amaranth or other grains that I've learned to work with," he said. "This is a way to incorporate these grains into your diet. There are other grains than wheat and they're very interesting and have their own unique qualities."
One of the ways that such decidedly non-sexy items as old grains become fashionable, Chad said, is to be championed by those bakers and chefs who want to use them, making it sensical for farmers to grow them, making them available to consumers to taste them.
"I'd like to help reposition old grains in a more stylish way," he said, "so that people choose to eat them and not just for the health reasons. Before, it was boring; there weren't a lot of choices.
"Now, we have hundreds of varieties of wheat to choose from."
They say a man never steps into the same river twice. But what if he steps into what used to be a creek, then became a slough, and then became a creek again? Perhaps then, he's stepped into a story.
Foss Creek, the Russian River tributary that we quite literally overlook here at SHED, is a waterway that has been through a few such changes in identity. Like all natural resources, it has had an evolving relationship with the region’s human population. Since the time of early settlers, Foss has transitioned from utilitarian waterway to beloved neighborhood creek – a storied past that we’ll learn about in our free community talk and creek walk tonight in the Grange from 5-7:30pm.
In Healdsburg’s early days, people knew the creek to be wide, full, and as one pioneer enthused, a great place to raise ducks. In Healdsburg Tribune editions from the 1880s, a time at which fishing reports were regularly served along with local news, it was noted that the creek teamed with trout after a heavy rainstorm. After one such rain, a local resident was lauded for catching 50 trout one day, 60 the next.
But as Healdsburg’s population grew in the late 1800s, the creek was used for more industrial purposes. A tannery and gristmill were built alongside its banks, and its waters were used to carry away production waste. Residents also used the creek for household waste in the days before indoor plumbing was common.
Near the turn of the last century, the creek was known as Norton Slough, and served as a dividing line between the more and less desirable parts of town. The illicit area on the Western edge of Healdsburg had its dance halls, brothels, saloons, and other houses of ill repute a mere footbridge away from the tidier lives of "decent" citizenry.
After a century or more of misuse, the creek became overgrown with wild brush and liable to flood. It occasionally did and could cause serious damage — something many current residents will remember. But now, thanks to Russian Riverkeeper’s Foss Creek Community Restoration Project, much of the invasive non-native plants have been removed, which has reduced flooding impact and improved wildlife habitat along the creek. Today, depending on season and rainfall, the former slough is home to crayfish, sculpin, and even the occasional otter.
At tonight’s community creek walk, Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, and Jack Sorocco, longtime Healdsburg resident and raconteur, will reveal the history of Foss Creek through colorful stories and historic photographs, then lead us in a guided walk down a portion of the creek to point out ecological and historical features of note. Families are welcome. Bring your walking shoes, your camera, and get ready to take a trip up the creek and back in time.
Many thanks to the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society for the use of their archive and images.
SHED Note: Foggy River Farm is the featured provider at our Aug. 16 Market Day Farmer's Lunch. Foggy River co-farmer Lynda Browning is not only talented in the fields and with her goats — she's also a marvelous writer.
In honor of her farm's starring role in our upcoming lunch, Lynda has allowed us to reprint this post she made last February on a particularly dour day. Not all, as the New York Times recently made haste to point out, is sunshine and strawberries in the life of a farmer.
do not farm. it will crush your soul.
By Lynda Hopkins
I am writing to say: do not farm. It will crush your soul. For three reasons.
1) The first problem with farming is that it is incompatible with modern life.
Yes, there is that thing where you spend Friday nights harvesting vegetables instead of going out; where you work weekends and weekdays sunup to sundown; where vacations are complicated by the fact that you a) have little money and b) have to hire an entire army to take care of your beets/goats/cows/chickens/farmstand/markets while you are gone.
But parents of young children don’t often go out on Friday nights; there are other vocations that yield little money; and other people sometimes hire armies to take care of their homes in their absence. So none of those things are unique to farming. Farming’s incompatibility with modern life runs deeper.
As a farmer, you will occasionally go to the city. In the city, you will realize that you have become a country bumpkin; you do not understand this pace of life, you do not understand that some people are responsible to and for only themselves. You will go to the grocery store and wonder how any of this makes sense. How many cows were milked together into the tank that this gallon of milk came from? How many cows are in this carton? You will wonder why no one is asking these questions. What was your name, cow? Where do you live? You will wonder at the fact that most of the people buying milk have never touched a cow; have never placed their cheek against the soft side of an animal and smelled the sweet musk of her as they trap milk in her teats and squeeze it out into the silver bucket. Psh, psh.
2) The second problem with farming is that you will become far too comfortable with death.
More so than most — save, perhaps, the climbers of Everest or those who still sail the seven seas — farmers live on the edge of survival. Is this just melodrama? No. Farmers are constantly surrounded by entropy. We wage war against insects to protect our precious plants. We harvest those plants, then till them into the soil, burying them. As cultivators of life, we are constantly thwarting and constantly hastening death.
More problematic than our proximity to death is the role we play in it. As a farmer, you quickly learn the terrible power you wield. You are the lord of your kingdom; judge, jury, and executioner. A rooster attacks you so you mete out punishment: off with his head, his body boiled in the stew pot. What begins as justice morphs into a commitment to quality. ‘Breeding program’ means keeping the strong, and ingesting the weak.
Then, one fine day, you will learn that you can put a bullet through the head of an hours-old baby goat who has just learned to walk. By all rights, she should grow up, produce offspring, spend quiet minutes each morning in the milk room grinding away at her grain as her udder empties out into the milk pail.
But none of these things will happen, because she has an umbilical hernia. Her intestines are sliding out of her body: wet ropy coils, unwinding. It is nighttime. You have a .22. She is suffering. And her suffering arms you with a terrible knowledge — that leaders must be able, in a moment, to shut off their emotions.
You kill her, and yet you feel nothing — nothing, perhaps, but a distant horror, a vague unease. This is tragic! You should cry! But you did not cry and you felt nothing because to feel something would be to admit too much. It would require admitting that life really is that fragile; that the world really is that cruel. There is no meaning to be found in a tiny creature with so much will to live and so much brokenness in her body, whose only destiny is to be shot in the head in the middle of the night in a hasty, shallow grave dug across the road. There is no greater good, no feast deriving from this death, no meat to share from these brand new bones, no happy life with one bad day.
There is only the one bad day. And three bullets, because the breath did not stop after one.
3) The third problem with farming is you can never go back.
The trouble is, farming is addictive. Like a gambler you get yourself in so deep — poker chips of livestock, infrastructure, equipment — you can’t get out, except by continuing to play the game.
But the addiction is psychological, too. As a farmer you find yourself deeply connected: to plants, animals, death, life, the universe, and everything. Everything needs you. The goats need you daily: to be fed, to be given water, to be milked. The plants need water and food too, in their own way. But those are the obvious things that need you, the things that are most like your own children, organisms that live and reproduce and grow old and die. But they are not the only things needing you. Fences and tractors need you. Shovels and shears need you. In a strange way, the land itself needs you: it calls out to be worked.
Even if you did not farm it, even if it were not cultivated, the land would need you to manage it, for trees fall on power lines and fences. And if you do not believe in those things, fine: let the trees fall where they may. But trespassers leave behind half-empty handles of drug store vodka, and those, I think we can all agree, need to be removed.
You are connected to all of this: the animals and the plants and the fences and the vodka. To dissever yourself from these things would leave you lost. Walking away from farming would untether you, and while it would free you, perhaps you have come to fear freedom. Perhaps you have learned the value of roots. Perhaps to pull up those roots would make you feel like you were walking into a life of quiet vacancy, if not outright desperation.
In these ways, farming crushes your soul. If you love and hate those roots, if you can’t imagine life without them; if you have a personal hierarchy of life (bug, plant, chicken, turkey, cat, goat, dog, us) and you thank God when you find out from your spouse that it’s just a laying hen he’s burying, and not a dog or a goat; if you can do what needs being done, when it needs to be done, no matter how horrid…
Then I’m sorry, dear soul, for you too are a farmer.
A watershed, as defined by geography scientist John Wesley Powell, is part equal parts land, water, and poetry.
Ellen Cavalli didn't used to think much of hard apple cider. "Everything we'd ever tasted was just so sweet – it was just like apple juice with vodka," she says. "We wondered, what's so special?"