Maine Grains Rise to the Occasion
Ancient varieties restore terroir to local bread
Sirvinta. Einkorn. Black emmer. Red fife. They have been in Maine far longer than you have. These are just a few varieties of wheat that were a staple of the Maine diet for hundreds of years. Harvested by scythe, they were transported in horse-drawn wagon to the thousands of grist mills that once dotted Maine’s Somerset County. These crops fed over 100,000 people each year, but things changed in the middle of the 19th century when railroad transport allowed Mainers to get their grain from elsewhere—places with more open farmland and longer growing seasons.
Soon, the traditional varieties were lost, and the heritage of the Maine grain industry was seemingly lost with it. But now, Maine grains are making a comeback through a revival of old varieties and traditional baking techniques.
“When I first started looking around for local grains 20 years ago, there wasn’t much out there,” recalls Jim Amaral, founder of Borealis Breads in Wells. “What little was available was of very poor quality, and the only local mill at the time did not have the grain cleaning equipment to process wheat from the local farms.
“All the wheat flour that I was buying from the bakery wholesalers was from out west, and the only information I could get about the flour was the protein level, not the variety or where it was grown,” Amaral says. But he kept pursuing the opportunity to use local grains. “I started talking to Matt Williams in Aroostook County, and in 1997 he grew 35 acres of wheat for us that first year.”
Within a few years, Williams was not only growing wheat for Borealis Breads but milling it too. Today, out of Aurora Mills in Linneus, Williams, his daughter Sara, and her husband Marcus supply Borealis Breads with 80,000 pounds of fresh, organic whole-wheat and whole-rye flour.
Other farmers and bakers have come together thanks to a group that formed in the former bread belt of Maine. Amber Lambke, co-founder of the Maine Grain Alliance (MGA), is a native of Skowhegan and was part of an effort to revitalize the local economy. “We realized we have lands, we have farms, and we have young people who want to return to those places for jobs. Reviving the grain economy was a way to restore jobs and provide good healthy food for our community,” says Lambke. Hence MGA was born.
“Things grew organically because the interest was there and the need was there,” says Tristan Noyes, executive director of MGA. At the time, Noyes was a lettuce farmer. He and his brother, who both grew up in Aroostook Country, started (and still own) Gromaine, an organic farm in Woodland. But, the resurgence of Maine grains got them excited about growing some of these heritage varieties.
“We really have to think about the farmer first,” says Barak Olins, owner of Zu Bakery. “I want to meet them where they are getting good yields and I’m getting good flavor.”
MGA has helped bring the baker and the farmer together. “We were sitting around the campfire at MGA’s annual Kneading Conference and playing guitar when I got to talking to the couple across from me,” says Derek DeGeer, owner of Hootenanny Breads.
“It turned out they were just starting out as grain farmers. Neither of us knew what ‘falling numbers’ were or how they indicated grain quality, but we vowed to work together. I’ve been buying rye and whole wheat from them ever since.” That was in 2011, and that couple was Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis, who own Songbird Farm in Unity.
Farmers beginning to grow Maine grains now needed places to turn that grain into flour, but Somerset County’s thousands of grist mills were long gone. On behalf of MGA, Lambke approached several community groups and proposed that they convert the old Somerset Jail into a granary.
They did, and now, the Somerset Grist Mill is the biggest in the state. Last year, they turned 1,200 tons of Maine grains into flour.
“[The Somerset Grist Mill has] done more to improve the quality of those grains than anybody,” says Olins (Zu Bakery). “I used to buy whole grains from a number of regional sources and mill them in my bakery, but the flour that they mill now is so good that I don’t do it anymore.”
Centuries-old, Maine-grown grain varieties are now readily available for local bakers.
“It used to be that when you made the decision to use local and organic grains, you were taking a vow of poverty,” says DeGeer (Hootenanny Breads). “They were hard to find, expensive, and the consumer wasn’t looking for them. Now they are grown and distributed so widely that it’s easier to feel you are sourcing it with integrity.”
Reeve Wood, owner of Counterpoint Bread, is one of the new guys. He’s been baking for three years out of his home in Bowdoinham. “I’ve been pleasantly ignorant about how great the flour that I’m using is because I haven’t had to struggle to find it,” he says.
In addition to utilizing these heritage grain varieties, bakers are also using old baking techniques.
Father Paul Dumais grew up in Madawaska eating ployes, a buckwheat pancake that is a staple of the Acadian diet. He is dedicated to promoting the production of tartary buckwheat, a crop that his family once grew. Now, Noyes (MGA) is growing it on his farm with some of the last seed from the Dumais farm.
Father Dumais says an insight from his aunt, who used to make ployes, led him back to using a fermented starter. “As I was developing my recipe, I asked her how she used to make them,” he shares. “She looked off into the distance and said, ‘You know, my mother used to have a wooden bucket on the shelf of the cook stove, and she would take from that to make the batter.’ ”
“[Using a fermented starter is] a very old process—there is an intuitive way that it fits into the rhythm of life,” says Kerry Hanney, owner of Night Moves Bread & Pie, who uses sourdough cultures in all of her baking.
“The longer you ferment [the starter], the more you predigest the grain. This preserves it naturally. The acid in the sourdough also breaks down the gluten so the bread is virtually gluten free,” says Hanney. This creates a plus in marketing these breads to customers who are interested in gluten-free options.
Bakers aren’t just getting back to old grain varieties—they’re rediscovering old tools to help advance their baking techniques, as well.
Stu Silverstein is a multi-talented artist, writer, bread baker, world traveler, and Maine resident who builds his own earth ovens and holds workshops to teach others the same. DeGeer of Hootenanny Breads has one of Silverstein’s ovens in his backyard.
Inspired by a visit to the Poilâne bakery in Paris, where he observed a baker at work in front of a large wood-fired oven, Silverstein decided to take his longtime baking practice to the outdoors with a wood-fired oven of his own.
"I love working with wood, fire, earth," he says. "These are primal sources for me. It’s most satisfying to bake outdoors—you’re dealing with so many variables that there’s no way you can get bored."
Silverstein admits that he tried to grow wheat once, but he recalls, "it was doing just great and then one day I looked at it and it had all fallen over, and I decided I would let someone else do it and I’ll bake the bread." That led him to focus on the craft of building ovens.
“As we move further and further away from older traditions, I’m attracted to what we’ve done before,” he says. “It connects me to all bakers who came before me who baked in a primitive fashion.”
In his book, Bread Earth and Fire, Silverstein explains how to build wood-fired ovens in two variations: mud and brick. These outdoor ovens have the capacity to produce incredible breads and pizzas that you can’t create with an indoor, conventional oven.
“What you gain by baking indoors is control,” Silverstein says in his book’s introduction. And while he won’t fault you for choosing this route, cooking pizza in an outdoor wood-fired oven is particularly rewarding. A conventional oven can’t reach the floor temperature (700°F) needed to produce a rustic-style crust, which needs to be “kissed by fire,” he explains.
Artisans like Silverstein and Maine farmers, bakers, and millers are finding ways to work together by using the best of the old to build a new industry. And what they are producing is delicious.
“We are lucky here in Maine that we have some of the best bakers in the world,” says Noyes (MGA). Lambke (MGA) adds that, “When you have bread made from freshly milled rye that’s sweet and moist, there’s nothing better.”
As the Maine grain industry continues to grow, so too will the connections that make our delicious landscapes possible.
Susan Olcott is a freelance writer living in Brunswick with her husband and 8-year-old twin girls. She loves to write about all things coastal including and particularly those that are edible.