The New Amsterdam Market was a slice of bread heaven last Sunday. Fifteen of the city's best bakeries offered a dizzying array of delicious loaves, many of them created just for this event. The occasion was the market's Bread Pavilion, designed to showcase flours made from wheat grown by regional farmers. "We brought in bakers not normally in the market in celebration of local grains," said New Amsterdam founder Robert LaValva. The bakers came to support the farmers, and to compete. As Keith Cohen of Orwasher's said, "I brought my A game."
The event grew out of the NYC Greenmarket's Regional Grains Initiative, which started in 2004. Back then, Greenmarket officials noticed an inconsistency in their requirements: farmers could only sell local produce, but bakeries could make their goods from flour grown in the Midwest, Canada, or wherever. At the same time, they wanted to help farmers who were trying to revive the wheat-growing tradition in New York State, which in the mid-19th century was the heart of the nation's wheat belt. To some squawking from bakers, the Greenmarket required that baked goods be made with 15 percent local flour. Today, a few bakers still only use the minimum, but others have embraced the effort, using 100% local grain. They now help support seven mills Upstate and in Pennsylvania that buy grain from a growing number of farmers.
"We're trying to move people toward the taste and look of local wheat," said Sharon Burns-Leader of Bread Alone, one of the biggest supporters of the initiative. She brought an apple cider levain made with Champlain Valley wheat flour and Migliorelli cider. For her, like many bakers, the main issue with local grain is consistency. In places like the upper Midwest, they've been growing the same varieties for decades, and consequently bakers know exactly what they're getting when they use it. In the Northeast, however, farmers have to deal with all kinds of variables, including microclimates, so they can't insure that their grain is the same from crop to crop. Plant scientists are now developing wheat suited to the Northeastern ecosystem, but it won't be on the market for years.
For many of the bakers, the rustic qualities of local grains are part of their charm. "I like them a lot," said Peter Endriss of Runner & Stone. "Local flours are rougher, but I think it's great have access to the millers and being able to talk to them about their flours." Runner & Stone's entry to the Bread Pavilion was a roasted potato and garlic chive levain, with the delicate chive aroma a nice counterpoint to the wheaty-ness of the bread. Next door, Louis Volle of Dean & Deluca was offering a crisp, flavorful Baguette de Perche (a region of northern France) made from local barley. He said: "It's got great texture and a wonderful flavor." Look for the baguette in his fall list.
Most bakers at the event produced variations on the levain or the baguette. Melissa Weller of Roberta's broke the mold by creating a melt-in-the-mouth delicious olive oil brioche, made from local whole wheat, organic olive oil, honey, and natural leaven. And the prize for the largest bread went to Orwasher's Levain Locale, a massive cross-hatched loaf made from just local flour and natural ferment. This was not just some freak of the baker's art. Keith Cohen spent a month developing the bread and realized that his dough simply worked better in the larger form. It had a moist crumb with a rich wheat flavor and a chewy crust with a slightly bitter, caramel-y bite. Luckily for us, it soon should be appearing in the regular Orwasher's rotation.
Unfortunately, the Bread Pavilion was only a one-off event. Nevertheless, the New Amsterdam Market will continue to feature Nordic Breads, Sullivan Street Bakery, Orwasher's, and Runner & Stone as part of its regular 2012 season line-up.