By Adrian J.S. Hale
I first met Nan Kohler at a grain conference. In a room packed with wheat breeders, grass seed farmers, and bakers, Nan introduced herself as a miller. Not a baker who occasionally tried making flour, or a grass seed farmer who needed to figure out how to get their product to market, but a miller, plain and simple.
She told me about Grist & Toll, a small milling operation that she’d opened in 2012 in Los Angeles. I’d never thought about how flour is made or the technicalities of turning a seed into the stuff I bake with. I knew immediately that I wanted to visit Nan at her mill.
A few months later, I rounded a corner in the heart of Pasadena and parked in front of Grist & Toll. It stood in one corner of a small warehouse-looking complex. Not the village mill I was expecting, yet not a big, industrial factory either. I wandered into the shop, and suddenly I was in another world, a quaint space lined with bags of wheat flour that had varietal names such as Red Fife and Charcoal. There were also many types of grains like spelt, rye, and corn.
I felt more like I was in a chic wine store than a place that brokers a commodity product. A few minutes later, she led me back to the milling room and switched on her Osttiroler stone mill. She watched carefully and made some adjustments to the feed tube. A few loud minutes later, the sweet aroma of wheat filled the air. Only this was wheat I’d never actually smelled in real life, but something more like the archetype of what wheat should smell like.
Later, Nan’s husband, Chris, put a rustic loaf in front of me, insisting I try some. It was made with a Grist & Toll blend of whole grain hard white and hard red wheat. I took a bite and chewed slowly, then another, trying to discover each layer of its rich, round flavor.
“You’re tasting the wheat!” Nan says. “If I made this with Charcoal, it would be completely different.”