Tuesday July 09, 2013 | 08:41 AM

Somerset Grist Mill today.

In the first post  of The Root’s “Local Grain Economy” series we focused on farming, and in the second, the science. In documenting this emerging movement, we now turn to milling, another vital part of the process of creating a local grain economy.

I had just polished off a couple slices of pizza at Delancey, a pizzeria in Seattle, Washington owned by Molly Wizenberg (aka the blogger “Orangette”) and her husband Brandon Pettit. Dinner had been delicious and filling, but the Bittersweet Chocolate Chip Cookie with Sea Salt was calling my name. Halfway through the cookie I called Molly over. I said something like “What the heck is in this, it’s the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had,” and she said “I use local flour.”

That was three years ago, and since then I’ve been enjoying starches made with locally sourced flour whenever possible. Most recently I made pancakes with buckwheat flour from Maine Grains in Skowhegan, Maine.

When the Somerset County Jail in downtown Skowhegan was built in 1897, one can be quite sure neither the guards or the inmates they watched over would have ever expected the lockup to be reused as a grist mill project reviving local grain production in central Maine, as well as having the reputation of being one of the country’s emerging rural ‘food hubs.’ Yet, in 2009 thanks in great part to the efforts of Amber Lambke, now President of the Somerset Grist Mill, it became just that. 

Lambke was inspired by the evident need for grain processing infrastructure at the first Kneading Conference in 2007, and the historical grain yields documented in the area (239,000 bushels of wheat produced in Somerset County in 1837).

Today, the old jail still has its bars on the windows, former holding cells, and the 'recreation' yard has been transformed into a courtyard for cafe seating where children play during the weekly farmers’ market.

Renovations during spring of 2012

Maine Grains, a wholesale manufacturing facility producing stone-milled grains, is housed at the Somerset Grist Mill. Through the use of their unique traditional stone milling process, Maine Grains preserves the nutritional content of the grain. Slow turning mill stones keep the flour cool, which improves performance in the natural fermentation baking and provides a variety of hearty flavors.

“Our mill will expand to include more grains in the coming year to include rye, emmer, flint corn, red fife wheat, and spelt,” Lambke said. “We have just secured a commitment from the Whole Foods production bakery in Boston, MA. for 30 tons of organic whole-wheat flour starting in September. We hope to continue to drive the production and demand for organic grains grown in Maine.”

The Maine Grain Alliance (MGA), a nonprofit organization formed in 2007 in Skowhegan, recently received a grant from a fund at the Maine Community Foundation to support continuing education and technical assistance for entrepreneurs pursuing grain-based businesses.

“We will launch the Maine Grain and Bread Lab this fall out of the Somerset Grist Mill certified kitchen to educate farmers, millers, and bakers about wheat varieties, baking characteristics and flavor,” said Lambke. “ We seek to procure the necessary lab equipment that will allow us to test grain varieties on site for food grade measures, as well as test doughs for performance information.”

Plans are also underway by the MGA to start a seed propagation project this fall to make specialty variety seed more readily available to commercial farmers by multiplying the seed supply.

Aurora Mills and Farm
In 1999, four Maine grain growers got together to provide local organic wheat to Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads, a Maine based producer and retailer of artisan breads. “Jim used mills in Canada and Maine to process the wheat, but for several reasons found his milling support inadequate leaving my father and the other growers with good wheat in storage but nowhere to get it milled,” said Sara Williams, daughter of Aurora Mills and Farm owner Matt Williams. “At that time my father decided that the only solution was for us to mill it and started building a mill in 2001. By 2002 we had the mill up and running and at that point started distribution with Jim Cook the founder of Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative.”

Aurora Mills and Farm processes exclusively Maine grown organic grains. They grow a majority of their grains, and also purchase product from farms in Aroostook County.

Interest in local food systems has benefited the business. “People are realizing how disconnected they have become from there food,” said Williams. “Also they are realizing food is medicine and one of the most important steps one can do to take control of their lives and health is to get back into the kitchen. Cooking with whole grains is a major building block in a meal and people are re-familiarizing themselves with these cereals. This means people are using our wheat berries in salads, our oats in their granola and oatmeal and our flour in their pastries and breads all increasing demand!”

Future plans include certifying their kitchen and installing a wood fired oven to bake bread for markets to help educate the public about how to use their products.

Enjoy the benefits of the growing local grain economy at this year’s Artisan Bread Fair on Saturday, July 27 at the Somerset Grist Mill.  Aurora Farm & Mills will be there selling their selling Winter Wheat, Spring Wheat and Oats. Entry is free, parking is $2. Bring cash for vendors.


Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

No butter is needed with Maria Speck’s Olive Bread with Bacon and Thyme from her cookbook Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, just a glass of wine. It’s delicious all on it’s own, and best made with local flour. Maria has a lifelong passion for the subtle flavors and rich textures of whole grains. Maria has lectured on ancient grains in the Jacques Pépin Lecture Series at Boston University, the Harvard Food Literacy Project, and the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, where she is also a cooking instructor in the professional program. Her recipes are inspired by the ease and appeal of Mediterranean cuisine and the centuries-old traditions of preparing whole grain foods in Northern Europe. Enjoy!

Olive Bread with Bacon and Thyme from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press) by award-winning author Maria Speck  (used with permission by Maria Speck).

2 ounces smoked bacon, chopped (about ½ cup)
3 cups whole wheat flour (12 ¾ ounces)
4 tsp baking powder
1 ¼ tsp fine sea salt
¾ tsp sugar
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ cup finely chopped pitted black and green olives (about 20)
2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme, or 2 tsp dried
1 ½ cups chilled lowfat buttermilk (12 ounces)
1. First, crisp the bacon. Line a plate with paper towels. Cook the bacon in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned and crisp at the edges, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon bits to the paper towel-lined plate to drain and let cool.

2. Whisk together the whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and pepper in a large bowl. Scatter the bacon, olives, and thyme across the flour mixture and stir in. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Using a dough whisk or a fork, and starting from the center, gradually stir in the flour until most of it is incorporated (some flour may remain at the sides). Gather the moist dough inside the bowl with lightly floured hands (if the dough is wet, sprinkle it with flour). Incorporate any remaining flour and bring together, with 5 to 7 gentle turns, into a lumpy ball. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and set aside to rest for 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 400. Lightly grease a 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan with olive oil, or coat with cooking spray.

4. Turn out the shaggy dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Lightly flour your hands and gently knead about 8 turns until smooth, while forming an oblong loaf about 7 inches long. Place the loaf, seam at the bottom, in the pan. Using a very sharp knife, make 2 diagonal cuts that cross in the center, ½ inch deep. Dust the loaf with flour, cover the pan with a dish towel, and let it sit for 10 minutes.

5. Bake until the loaf is well risen, crusty, and nicely browned. A cake tester or toothpick inserted into center should come out clean (an instant-read thermometer should register 200 F), about 55 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Cut with a sharp serrated knife and serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 1 (1 ½-pound) loaf

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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