by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
A while back, George DePasquale visited the ancient Italian city of Pompeii, not far from his ancestral home of Sorrento. Looking at a 2,000-year-old oven, DePasquale could easily imagine how its baker prepared and baked bread much as he does today at Seattle’s Essential Baking Company. He could feel he was part of a long, human continuum, “a river of history,” with “bazillions of people behind me, bazillions of people to come.”
But even the oldest rivers change, forming new channels, and sometimes doubling back on themselves.
Thousands of years after people turned a wild seed into a cultivated grain, the fundamental process of raising wheat and fashioning it into bread is being reassessed. The elements remain the same: flour, water, leavening, and heat and voilà, a seed’s fuel reserve is now a lofty festival of texture and flavor. But wheat’s path to the table — from growing to milling to the chemical symphony of kneading and baking — is now being subjected to the craftsmanship of its fermented brethren, wine, cheese, and beer. Even the word terroir can be heard as growers, millers, and bakers apply ancient techniques and modern science to locally nurtured wheat varieties and breads.
DePasquale himself noticed this when he tried bread made from Bauermeister, a hard red wheat bred by Stephen Jones, director of the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center and leader of its western Washington small grains breeding program.
“I was knocked out,” DePasquale recalled late this summer at the Kneading Conference West, the West Coast version of the nationally recognized bread workshop started five years ago in Skowhegan, Maine. One variety in particular, said DePasquale, was “literally the best flour I’ve ever tasted.”