“Why don’t we have this?” she thought. The idea of getting varietals of flour from local mills captured her, so she did a little research. With cooks and diners becoming increasingly obsessed with local ingredients, why were we still content with flour as a commodity product? She knew from her baking experience that different flours imparted distinctive characteristics. Why shouldn’t flour be as local, artisan, and sustainable as the heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef on our plates? It seemed impossible that freshly milled, stone-ground flour was so hard to come by, but it was. Nan realized she’d have to do it herself.
“I started this business thinking all about flavor,” she says. “But once I started doing it, interacting with all the people that grow our grains, my perspective became broader.”
She opened Grist & Toll, and has been at the frontline of the local grain movement ever since. Now that she is intimate with every detail of how grain gets to market, she sees educating the consumer as part of her mission.
“We have to take a look at our biggest crops and make some changes,” she said. “Flour is so cheap and degraded.”
How so? A whole wheat kernel is highly nutritious. The big difference between wheat that sustained early civilizations and what we eat now is largely processing. There are three main parts of a wheat kernel: endosperm, bran, and germ. The endosperm makes up the bulk, providing macronutrients in the form of carbohydrates and proteins, and it is the part that makes white flour. Much of wheat’s nutrition is found in the other two parts. For most of human history, we crushed the whole kernel into flour, which meant that the nutritive parts—fiber-rich bran and nutrient-packed germ—were ground right in. The problem is that germ is also prone to rancidity. Therefore, traditional stone milling did not lend itself to industrialization.
In the late 1800s, new technology came to market that allowed us a way to shear off the bran and germ, making flour more shelf stable. In the early 20th century, health officials began to notice vitamin deficiencies in world populations and decided to target certain food staples for enrichment. In the 1940s, the United States government put public health measures in place to enrich wheat flour with vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, including folic acid, and iron, a practice still in place today. Nutritionists are now uncovering that a few added vitamins in our flour might not be enough. We know that most Americans don’t get enough fiber, and one way to correct this is by switching from white flour products to ones that contain all of the outer bran. Stone milling helps provide a solution.
Wheat has also been devalued in the marketplace, and it’s hard for farmers to get real worth for it. For years, wheat has been monocropped, which is a method of growing a single crop on the same land year after year, an agricultural practice that can deplete the soil of nutrients. Farmers also have been breeding plants for yield rather than nutrition or baking qualities, much less sustainability. As Nan was sourcing grains, she started connecting the dots between ones that are grown in more sustainable farming systems and the flavors and nutrition that consumers are getting from them.