Cross-Pollinating Ideas at the Grain Gathering
Robin Asbel, Chef, Author, Instructor
Some people take time off at the end of July to visit a white sand beach.
But there’s no barley at the beach.
Instead, at 3;45 am, I found myself driving in darkness, about an hour North of Seattle, navigating country roads to get to an experimental grain field before dawn. There, as the light spilled over the silhouettes of purple mountains in the distance, I met with 38 like-minded people to follow a visionary through a field.
Of course, there was more to my trip than that. I was there to spend three days learning about grains, bread, local economies, farm policy, and of course, stuffing myself with swoon-worthy whole grain breads, pastries, and more at the Grain Gathering.
Three Days of All-Grains, All the Time
The Grain Gathering is hosted by the Bread Lab, which is the brainchild of Dr Steven Jones. Jones is the visionary who lead the pre-dawn tour of the fields, and the head plant geneticist at Washington State University. He’s also a leader in the effort to improve the taste, hardiness, and sustainability of wheat and other grains. The Bread Lab is the place where the people who breed the grains, the people who grow them, and the people who bake and cook with them come together, to learn from each other.
And it took a visionary to make that happen.
If you wonder what a bread lab is, it’s basically a bakery with a whole bunch of specialized equipment that is used to analyze the flours and doughs on a chemical level. Big bread manufacturers do this, but in this lab, it’s all about guiding the breeding of grain toward a flour or flake that artisan bakers can make into something with great texture and flavor. The kind of flavor that makes converts out of white bread lovers, without commodity wheat flour, or enzymes, or chemical additives, just grain.
Local grain communities have been sprouting across the country, thanks in part to the model started around the Bread Lab. Before this new movement took hold, none of these groups talked to each other, and wheat breeding was all about yield. Growers grew and bakers baked, but wheat kept moving forward with everybody in a separate little bubble.
Which brings us to the Grain Gathering. Since 2011, this annual event has drawn bakers, growers, millers, chefs, cereal chemists, malters, and a bunch of other folks interested in the cross-pollination of grainy information to a beautiful spot in the Skagit Valley.
And there’s beer. It’s made from barley. Tasting beer is serious business, even if it looked like a bunch of people having a good time.
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