In 2007 Oliveto began working with northern California farmers & millers to source local wheat for our pasta and pizza flour and corn for our polenta.
A fair while ago, the Oliveto kitchen looked for locally grown wheat and other grains grown by good farmers and found not one field of grain – not a single amber wave, not even a ripple. The whole sea had moved inland, along with granaries and mills. The industrial grain complex sought uniformity and ease of distribution, and we lost the wealth of flavor, nutrition, and growing knowledge that our region once possessed.
So, Bob Klein, our owner, got curious and enlisted good, wise farmers, bakers, millers, and others to go on a Big Think. Community Grains, a local cooperative of growers and purveyor of fine flours and pastas, was the result.
As our Community Grains continues to build and strengthen our local grain infrastructure, Oliveto continues to support its work.
We invite you to join Community Grains’ upcoming conference at St. George Spirits on April 9th and Oliveto on April 10th, as well as a separate, celebratory Local Grains Dinner presented by Oliveto, featuring our regional bounty of wheat and corn the evening of April 10th. This beautiful meal, courtesy of Chef Jonah, will show off the personality of this most humble, yet most delicious food group.
For those of you that couldn’t make it to the 2014 Community Grains Conference on March 9th it was truly a whirlwind! So many great speakers, and a good deal of groundbreaking information – it was all very exciting. At the same time we were sad we had to turn so many people away, but ticket sold out faster than we expected. Here’s a recording of the day’s discussion if you were unable to attend.
On January 10, we hosted a wheat tasting in the Oliveto dining room. Our plan wast to begin establishing some basic vocabulary for how to talk about the flavor components of wheat and flour as well as discern how those components vary between different varieties.
In attendance were some of the most highly-tuned palates we know including: Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon Vineyard), Oliveto co-owner Maggie Klein, Manresa sous chef Jessica Largey, author Harold McGee (Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen), journalist Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Master Baker Craig Ponsford, Oliveto Restaurant Executive Chef Rhodehamel, food historian and author William Rubel (Bread: A Global History), Manresa pastry chef Avery Ruzicka, and distiller Lance Winters (St. George Spirits/Hangar One).
Also in attendance was farmer Matt Taylor who grew the wheat we were tasting for Front Porch Farms, a small organic (soon to be biodynamic) farm, in Healdsburg, CA. As well as Community Grains founder, Bob Klein.
The group tasted three different varieties of wheat: Bolero, Christallo, and Desert King in five different forms/applications: straight seeds, whole-milled flour, porridge, pasta, and bread baked by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.
Panel members were gracious enough to let us collect their notes at night’s end and we are now in the process of compiling a first draft of a wheat/flour directory of terms which we will continue to add to and expand on as we become more fluent. There was definitely the consensus that this was a great first step, but that more tastings with additional variables and applications should follow. We’ll keep you posted…
There is perhaps no food we serve that has a more loyal following than our beloved Acme Levain. It is delivered to us half baked and we finish it here just before service, so it’s warm and crusty.
Steve Sullivan and Rick Kirby at Acme have been participants in the Oliveto Grain Project from the beginning (4 years ago). So when we started to get serious about whole grains last year we asked Steve if he could develop a 100% whole grain bread that we could serve. As Steve and Rick tinkered with the recipe over the last few months we’ve only been receiving five loaves of whole grain bread five days a week. Some of you early diners may have been lucky enough to find a few slices in your basket at dinner. Acme’s whole grain levain is absolutely delicious.
So it’s time for the unveiling of this new offering to Bay Area bread lovers. Starting this Monday, August 8th, Acme is going into official production mode, meaning we will have whole grain bread in our bread basket during dinner service every night! Initially, it will also be served at Chez Panisse and in Acme’s retail stores, with the intention that it will become more widely available over time.
Our Pastry Chef, Jenny Raven, is also now serving some whole grain morning buns in the cafe: one fruit, one savory.
After a couple of years of dilly-dallying with our beloved Red Flint ‘Floriani’ corn (growing one acre in 2009, then five acres last year) we’re finally taking the plunge with a much larger crop for 2011. Eighteen acres were planted in Woodland, CA along with another ten acres in Lodi, CA.
Also in the mix are test rows for improved seed selection in Sunol, and test plots of Floriani, and a second Italian variety called Otto File in Healdsburg.
We expect to yield between 40,000 and 90,000 lbs. of corn in a few months. Planting all took place around June 1st, and reports are good so far. We love hearing from the farmers and we will be posting their pics and observations in the Crop Report feed on the Community Grains website when we receive them.
If it’s true that some of the best Italian food is the food of the poor, then toasted wheat pasta has to be a supreme cucina povera dish.
The predominant explanation for toasted pasta from Puglia, is that after the wheat fields are harvested and burned to remove the chaff and weeds, gleaners would come and pick through the ashes for the remaining charred kernels of wheat, which they would then mill and make into pasta. Chef Jonah found a reference on the internet for burnt Puglian pasta, and started an experiment. It is hard to imagine a more labor intensive food, but as it turns out the effort is well worth it, as the results are truly delicious.
For me, this is particularly exciting because it is the first dividend from the Oliveto Grain Project (now Community Grains) begun 4 years ago. Initially, we hoped that by creating associations with grain farmers, millers, bakers and chefs we could create innovations similar to the ones that have come from associations with all our great meat ranchers and vegetable farmers. It worked.
We have toasted whole grain Hard Amber Durum pasta on the menu now, and for at least the next couple of months.
From the Life Is an Adventure department, comes lessons in farming corn.
We love our Floriani Red Flint corn, we think it makes the very best polenta. So, when we started to ask farmers to grow it for us several years ago, we found that the Rominger Brothers were up for the adventure. Their first crop, about an acre and a half, yielded 2,300 lbs per acre, but we thought some modest adjustment could improve that yield. (Yellow dent ‘field corn’ can yield over 12,000 lbs per acre.)
But the next year, the yield dropped to 1,300 lbs per acre. This makes for some expensive, all-be-it delicious, corn polenta. But we’re in it for the long haul, so last September, a group of us from Oliveto went up to Winters, California, to our 5 acre crop of Italian red flint corn to hand pick some for seed selection before the harvester came in.
Fred Hemple, a PhD plant-biologist-turned-farmer has now joined us in the adventure. At his farm, Baia Nicchia Farm and Nursery, in Sunol, he’s taking on the job of cleaning up the genetic lines of our corn. Fred will be blogging periodically about his progress, and working with us to develop our crop in the coming years. We’ll be following along on our Journal as well. We’re expanding the Floriani polenta service in the café, from lunch to close. It’s frequently on the dinner menu upstairs also.
Craig Ponsford has been a great friend to Oliveto over the past year. As we have become increasing interested in locally grown wheat and the use of whole grain flour for our pizzas and pastas, Craig has been providing us with all the necessary instruction and guidance as only a master baker can do. As a direct result of this friendship and Craig’s contagious enthusiasm, the Oliveto Grain Project evolved into a full-blown obsession and eventually Community Grains was formed.
So we are thrilled to announce that Craig has started his own pop-up bakery in San Rafael, CA. Ponsford’s Place is doing some amzing things by way of delicious baked goods that use 100% whole grains. To find out when Craig will “pop-up” next you’ll want to follow Pondsford’s Place on Twitter or Facebook. Innovative is an understatement.