Miller’s Bake House

Situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Butte County, California. It’s a bakery that consists of one baker, some cherished pieces of equipment, a sourdough culture and, each year, a fresh pulse of beautiful organic wheat and rye berries to fill the hopper of my stone mill.

The Grain

The farmers I work with are from near and far, mostly near, mostly quite small. The various wheat varieties I’ve baked with over the years have names like Len, Yecora Rojo, Anza, Express, Edison, Blanca Grande, Red Fife, Central Oregon Land Race, Sonora, Kamut, Emmer, Spelt and Einkorn.

The flavors these wheats express are not only peculiar to their variety, but also to the farm and to the specific season in which they are grown. Each fall is a time of anticipation for me as I sample the new harvest, see what qualities it has, and figure out how best to work with it.
As for the appropriateness of wheat growing in California it should be noted that the vast majority of wheat in the state is sown in the fall so that the crop can take advantage of winter and spring rains. Some farms aren’t irrigated at all, others use minimal irrigation in early summer. Wheat is not a ‘heavy feeder’ like corn or some other row crops.


Wheat harvest on Rancho Llano Seco

From the mid to the late 1800’s the Sacramento Valley was covered in vast fields of wheat. First grown for miners and their biscuits and then, on a much larger scale, for the growing cities in England at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Schooners took California wheat from San Francisco to ports in Liverpool.


Wheat was planted here because, at the time, it was the only commodity traded world-wide. It was the only crop for which a farmer could have a guaranteed market. Though Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, is well known for his experimentation with a variety of agricultural products, wheat was always his main source of income.

Today, wheat is an afterthought in California agriculture. But, I think, given our new appreciation for the limits of a water-intensive ag. system in a parched summer landscape, that wheat can play an important role.

The Mill

A wheat seed, like any other seed, is a remarkably efficient, well-designed, complex package of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants. It is easy to forget that bread, in its simplest form, is nothing but seeds – nutrient-dense, flavorful, life-giving seeds ( 14,000 or so per loaf – I counted!). How we millers and bakers treat these seeds is central to how good our bread will be.


Here’s where my beautiful stone mill comes in because it is central to everything. First, it allows me to buy grain straight off the farm, not from a mill or food broker. This way I know who’s growing it, how they are growing it and how much they are paid.

Milling in the bakery also allows me to control WHEN I use the flour in my doughs, which is right after I mill it, before the aroma, flavor and nutrients dissipate.

The Process

With careful preparation these attributes are transferred to a finished loaf. In the case of Miller’s breads, careful preparation means borrowing all of the enzymatic processes originally designed to facilitate the germination of the wheat seed into a living plant and, instead, using them to give life to a bread dough.


photo by James Kern

Amylase enzymes are busy turning carbohydrates to sugars, protease enzymes turn proteins into amino acids, lipase enzymes turn lipids into fatty acids and so on. An additional inoculation of micro-organisms is necessary to complete the fermentation process in bread dough. This comes from a sourdough culture which, on the face of it, is just a mixture of flour and water perpetuated from bake to bake. But, when you look closer, is a medium teaming with yeasts, enzymes and bacteria. This culture leavens, conditions, flavors, and partially breaks down complex substances in the dough so that our bodies can metabolize the wheat more readily.

The fact that we use the whole wheat berry is important here, not only because the majority of flavor and aroma compounds, as well as nutrients, in wheat are found in the parts of the grain that are sifted out to make refined white flour, but also studies have shown how our bodies have a much easier time metabolizing whole grain versus refined products made with white flour.

photo by Josey Baker

photo by James Kern

I’ve always felt that the best food combines both the pleasures of the pallet and the deep sense of gratitude our body feels when we give it what it needs.

The Market

Miller’s breads are available every Saturday morning at the Chico Certified Farmer’s Market downtown at 2nd and Wall streets as they have been for more than 20 years. Also available, by special order, are grains and freshly-milled flours. Market hours are 7:30 am – 1 pm. Best to make it by 10:00 am for a full selection.


photo by James Kern

The Farmers

Sally Fox

Sally has been a champion of Sonora wheat for the last 14 years on her organic farm in Capay Valley. Sonora has a long history in California and the Southwest but had been left behind by farmers interested in higher yielding varieties.


Sally Fox and Vandana Shiva

Sonora wheat in Capay Valley
Though passionate about wheat growing, what Sally is famous for is her work with organic, naturally-colored cotton. With her cotton – Foxfibre R – she was the first to breed and introduce naturally colored cotton to the world in 1989 – helping to eliminate the need for toxic dyes.

Fritz Durst

A fifth generation Yolo county farmer, Fritz has been an innovator on the local farm scene for some time. His diversified operation produces wheat, rice, asparagus, grapes and grass-fed beef. He was one of the first in the area to implement no-till practices in the 80’s to address soil erosion. And he’s been an advocate for using smart grazing practices to aid in the restoration of native grasses.

Rancho Llano Seco

The Rancho, located on the outskirts of Chico, is one of the last Mexican land grant properties that remains in tact. Llano Seco means dry plain in Spanish, and comes from the dry-land wheat fields that have been a fixture on the 18,000 acre tract of land since the Rancho’s incorporation.

Bookended by the Sacramento River and Chico Creek much of the land is set aside as a wildlife refuge with projects underway to restore native grasslands, wetlands, oak savannas and riparian forests.

Einkorn in the field

Fillmore Farms

The Fillmores have been farming in Gridley since 1917. We have been using their delicious walnuts for many years. Gerald, Brit and their children are carrying on the family tradition of stewardship and produce some of the most flavorful walnuts you will find anywhere.

Maisie Jane’s

When we moved our bakery from Chico to our home in Yankee Hill in ’98 we expected that another bakery would take over the old space on 12th street. Instead, the bread ovens were put to use as almond roasters and the building was turned into an almond processing facility. Maisie Jane started her business while she was a teenager, as a 4H project, to market almonds from her family’s farm – Bertagne Orchards. Today, Maisie and her husband, Isidro, provide plain, sliced and flavored almonds to customers around the world.


photo by Josey Baker

About Wheat

Wheat is a remarkable food with a history that is so intertwined with human history that it is hard to take humans out of its story. And gluten, the much-maligned gluten, provides the best answer as to why this is so.

Most people don’t realize that wheat doesn’t contain gluten. In fact, to make gluten you need humans. You need wheat, too, to be sure, but the magic of gluten cannot be revealed without our help. What wheat does have that is so important is gliadin and glutenin – the yin and the yang – two proteins that possess the opposing, yet complimentary, qualities of contraction and expansion.

The gifts we humans have to give to wheat are our ingenuity and our hands; ingenuity which conceives of, and constructs, something to grind the wheat seeds into flour so that we can add water and make a paste; and our hands which knead the paste into a dough, a dough which, thanks to wheat’s gifts of glutenin and gliadin, develops into a substance that is both elastic and extensible – gluten.

In essence, gluten forms the lungs of bread dough. Fermentation, or CO2 gases which result from yeast fermentation, breathes air into those lungs. The lungs can function because of the two gluten proteins, and the fact that the lungs exist at all is thanks to human participation.

But this isn’t the human participation that some people have expressed concern about. The human activity, related to wheat, that has drawn the most scrutiny has more to do with our manipulation of wheat’s gene pool through breeding.


photo by Josey Baker

Photo by Monika Walecka

I like to place this conversation into the context of ‘all things eaten by people’. If someone expresses concern about “modern wheat hybrids” at the farmer’s market I begin with a friendly challenge. I challenge them to find one non-hybrid food at the market and show it to me. The truth is that not one carrot, onion, asparagus spear, apple, tomato, cow, chicken or pig hasn’t been bred by well-intentioned human beings to alter their size, shape, color, yield, taste or nutritive value.

How is wheat bred today? Much like it has been bred for more than a hundred years. Wheat is self-fertile, containing both male and female reproductive organs. To cross one variety of wheat with another the anthers are pulled out of the host to take away the plant’s ability to pollinate itself. A cellophane slip is placed over the flowering head of the plant and pollen from a different wheat plant is sprinkled onto the host, inside the cellophane slip. Seeds from this plant, after it matures, will grow into a wheat that possesses genetic features from both parents.

There is nothing sinister about the process. Genetically modified wheat, which an alarming number of people believe exists, does not - not in farmers’ fields, anyway. Tests are being conducted but, as opposed to corn, soy, rice, tomatoes, potatoes and dozens of other foods which are commonly found on our dinner plates, GMO wheat is not commercially available anywhere in the U.S.

 

There is also a perception that all wheat has been bred, over the last 50 years, to contain ever-increasing amounts of gluten proteins. But the facts don’t support this. You can take this for what its worth, but I’ve spoken to more than one old-time baker during my 30 years in the business who volunteered that the wheats of their day were much stronger (baker-speak for higher in gluten) than the modern varieties. This could be explained by the fact that, where the gluten protein quality of wheat is concerned, environmental factors usually trump genetic factors. In other words, factors like soil quality, crop rotations, amount and timing of rain, etc. play at least as large a part in determining protein make-up in wheat as the genetic characteristics of any particular variety.

What is interesting is that for so many bakery applications, high gluten flour in NOT desired. If you insist on buying big, fluffy breads in the supermarket, you can count on a hefty gluten content, but flour for cakes, muffins, scones, crackers – even most artisan breads is typically moderate to low in gluten protein. Hundreds of varieties of wheat are grown across the country, each with its own set of characteristics, each farmer with his/her own methods.

The genome of wheat is 5 times larger than the human genome, so an infinite number of genetic variations are possible. Humans have been eating wheat for at least 23,000 years, domesticating it for 10,000 years. Wheat, itself, is millions of years old. Problems arise when too broad a stroke is used to paint something as complex as wheat. If you don’t feel well when you eat wheat then you have my sympathy. But wheat, for the vast majority of people in the U.S. and around the world, can be an important and extremely nutritious part of our diets if it is grown and prepared in a way that respects it for what it is – a staff of life.


photo by James Kern

Contact
Miller's Bake House

Dave Miller
Owner - Proprietor - Baker

5833 Lunt Road
Yankee Hill, CA
95965

(530) 532-6384

www.millersbakehouse.com
dave@millersbakehouse.com

All images and text © Miller's Bake House 2011-2016.
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