Bay Area wheat makes a comeback
The San Francisco Chronicle SF Gate
When Jessica Prentice and a handful of friends were organizing the first Eat Local Challenge in 2005, encouraging people to eat food grown within 100 miles of where they live, she approached baker Eduardo Morell to make bread with flour grown by Full Belly Farm in Yolo County. He had heard about Full Belly's soft white Sonora flour, but never thought it could be used to bake a great bread.
"The soft grain doesn't hold up to vigorous kneading or result in a very lofty loaf of bread," says Morell. "It's more like a rye bread, very dense and moist and chewy."
But Prentice was a close friend, so he made the bread. He used a loaf pan to compensate for the wheat's relative lack of structure, and he barely kneaded it because there wasn't that much gluten to develop. The bread turned out surprisingly good.
Over time, Morell figured out how to best work with Full Belly's flour, and now bakes about 20 loaves of what is affectionately known as the Local Loaf, sold at the Berkeley Farmers' Market to a small but devoted group of fans.
"The bread just packs more of a punch. The flavor's there. It's front and center," says Morell. "It's what wheat should taste like."
Those strictly following the eat local mantra have bemoaned the fact that they might have to pass up pasta and bread because wheat was rarely planted locally. But that is starting to change as a handful of local growers have begun to grow heirloom varieties that once thrived in parts of the Bay Area now covered in urban landscapes. In the process, they are reviving the story of Sonora wheat in California, a soft, light-colored strain that is said to have been brought over from Europe around the time of Columbus and grown by Native Americans.
"We didn't know if there was much of a market," says Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, which was one of the first farms to reintroduce wheat to the greater Bay Area about four years ago. "There wasn't at first, but slowly people are catching on. As a farmer it's not just figuring out how to grow something but how to sell it."
Full Belly now sells 7,000 pounds of wheat a year, including wheat berries as well as flour, at farmers' markets and to bakers and even brewers like Thirsty Bear in San Francisco. They've been joined by Pie Ranch, an educational farm on the San Mateo Coast that now supplies whole wheat flour to its nonprofit partner, Mission Pie, a cafe-bakery in San Francisco.
Eatwell Farm in Dixon sells its new crop of hard red winter wheat at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and next year plans to start a grain CSA (community-supported agriculture), where customers can sign up to receive regular deliveries direct from the farm.