The little thing that defined Graison Gill’s life was the smell of freshly ground flour. It was 2014, and the 27-year-old owner of the newly opened Bellegarde Bakery had already taken New Orleans by storm, wowing customers at the farmers market with whole-grain loaves unlike anything this town of po’boys and beignets had ever seen. But despite Gill’s success, he was never satisfied with his flour.
Virtually all flour in this country, whether organic or conventional, is produced (often months before use) by a handful of megamills. Gill knew that baking with flour off a stone mill was like stepping up from a can of Folgers to a freshly ground pour-over, but he never realized it could provide enough flour for Bellegarde. Then, he traveled to Vermont, where Andrew Heyn, the founder of New American Stone Mills and Elmore Mountain Bread, had built his own mill, researching techniques in old milling books. Gill was curious, but he had no idea what he was in for until he stepped into Heyn’s millhouse and inhaled the sweet scent of fresh-cracked wheat. “The aroma!” he recalls. “And the rhythm of it. The slow waltz of the stone moving on top of the other stone. It blew me away.”
The next thing he knew, Gill had ordered a mill with a 40-inch granite millstone, the largest millstone Heyn had ever cut at that point, and had hurdled into the forefront of the grain revolution. “I didn’t want to become a miller,” Gill says. “But I wanted to bake with flour that was alive, aromatic, nuanced, unique, fatty, creamy, and silky. And the only way to do so was to mill the flour myself.”
In the past two decades, quality has come to virtually every piece of the food system, as chefs and eaters have rediscovered the importance of well-produced ingredients. Whether it’s wine or chocolate, pork or oysters, we know the importance of terroir and technique. Yet one pillar of the American food system has barely budged, and it happens to be the one that serves up more of our calories than any other: grain.
Grain is a triumph of civilization. We’ve transformed the seeds of various grasses—wheat, rice, maize—into the ultimate commodity crops, generic calories that can be stored indefinitely. But along with their bran and germ, we removed their character. Seeds, we know, are some of our healthiest foods, yet we strip grains of so much of their nutrition and flavor that most people don’t think of them as seeds at all.
“White flour is a corpse,” says Gill, in his typical understated style. “It’s a dead, shelf-stable product. Freshly stone-milled flour is a living ingredient, full of flavor, texture, aroma, nutrition, and nuance.”
There was a time when nearly every town with a source of waterpower had a mill and everyone used freshly milled grain. That ended in the mid-1800s as settlers moved to the prairie, where wheat grew easily. Soon giant roller mills followed, processing all that Plains grain into the basic, indestructible white flour that powered America in the 20th century. By stripping each kernel of its oil-filled germ, which gives grain its richness, roller mills created a product with a virtually unlimited shelf life. And with national distribution systems in place that could deliver to every corner of America via railroads, the Midwest took over the bulk of grain growing, and regional mills disappeared. Today, more than 70 percent of the global grain trade is controlled by just four corporations.
The old books and seed catalogs are peppered with the names of heirloom grains that were famous for their distinctive looks, textures, and tastes: Red Fife wheat, Bloody Butcher corn, Abruzzi rye. But even if a baker wanted to work with these heirloom varieties and could find a farmer willing to grow them, there’s no one to mill them.
Once Gill had his mill, however, all he needed was grain. And he has found it. He gets red Ruby Lee wheat from Brett Carver, a wheat breeder at Oklahoma State University; hard white winter wheat from Kansas; and heirloom corn from Bayou Cora Farms in Baldwin County, Alabama, where the unique variety has been in the family since 1875. It makes stone-ground grits that are every color of a Southwest mesa. More important, says Gill, instead of dealing with wholesalers, he gets to hand a check directly to a farmer. “I’ll never go back,” he says. “I’ll never not have a mill.”
Let's not pretend: Milling hundreds of pounds of grain a day is a monumental task on top of a baker’s already grueling schedule. Who would take on such a commitment?
A whole new generation of renegade bakers, it turns out. Usually all it takes is one taste of a loaf made with fresh whole grains and traditional, slow fermentation, which allows the natural enzymes in the grains to break down the tough-to-digest gluten. Heyn’s stone mills are now grinding out beautiful flours at such third-wave bakeries as Providence’s Seven Stars; Boulted Bread in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Fry’s Bakery in Victoria, British Columbia. Others milling their own flour include Seylou Bakery & Mill in Washington, D.C.; New York City’s Scarr’s Pizza; and Soba Ichi in Oakland, California.
But freshly ground grains have been making inroads on the coasts for years. The real question for Gill was: Could he convert a city wedded to the whitest of breads? The answer: with ease. Bellegarde has grown from a one-man show to a 14-person enterprise cranking out a thousand loaves a day of floral and zesty baguettes, ciabatta, rye, and country bread for the city’s best markets, such as Rouses and St. James Cheese Company. And it’s no coincidence that the restaurants featuring Bellegarde products are the same ones that are reinventing New Orleans cuisine. The stone-ground grits give Isaac Toups’ shrimp and grits its earthy bite at Toups South. Best New Chef alum Nina Compton uses Bellegarde’s buckwheat flour in shortbread cookies at Compère Lapin. Whole-wheat flour gives Ryan Prewitt’s capellini its toothsome edge at Pêche.“I love it,” says Prewitt. “It makes the pasta denser and richer. I take it home and use it for my kids’ pancakes. It makes everything taste better. I can’t ever see going back.”
With chefs like Prewitt and bakers like Gill leading the way, it seems certain that the grain awakening is here to stay, and these humble, extraordinary plants can return to their rightful place at the center of our plates.
Update: In October 2019, Bellegrade opened a brick-and-mortar retail bakery in New Orleans.
Here, New Orleans chefs share their favorite ways to cook with Bellegarde flours: