Sunday July 28, 2013 | 10:33 AM

Miche made with Sifted Whole Wheat Flour from Somerset Grist Mill

Each summer since 2007, persons with a hungry curiosity about bread and baking have gathered in Skowhegan, Maine to learn more about building a brick oven, wood-fired baking, growing grains, and eating well. The Kneading Conference attracts farmers, homesteaders, bakers, ambitious home cooks unsatisfied with factory-sliced bread, and masons to share ideas and learn new skills.

Over two days attendees have options such as building a brick oven from scratch with heralded mason J. Patrick Manley III, getting a bit of flour on their hands learning to bake bagels in a wood-fired oven with Master Baker Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour, or learning about growing heirloom varieties of corn from Albie Barden, co-founder of the Common Ground Fair.

Last year, I attended the Artisan Bread Fair, which follows the Kneading Conference, and enjoyed handmade baked goods while catching up with some of my fellow bread enthusiasts. This year, my calendar marked “Kneading Conference” for months, I made my way to the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds and enjoyed an exciting keynote address by Richard Miscovich of Johnson & Wales University, a workshop on growing rice in New England with farmers Linda and Takeshi Akaogi, and a narrative by Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street on the iconic foods of Northern New England.

Richard Miscovich has been baking in wood-fired ovens since 1995. He teaches wood-fired oven cooking and bread baking classes around the country, and artisan bread making at Johnson & Wales. The conference officially kicked off with his keynote address on Thursday, July 25, 2013. In it he asked “What does beautiful bread mean to you,” and followed up with “I know it when I see it.” Miscovich talked about “chasing the heat” in live fire cooking, which translates to using the oven for different purposes depending on the heat – while it’s heating up or cooling down don’t waste the heat he implored, use it to dry herbs or cook fats. He talked at length about cultural resilience, and setting higher expectations for young people in regards to food. After all, just because a fast food joint sells “apple pie” doesn’t mean it is the same thing as the pie your family makes at home from scratch with locally sourced apples.

Since 2006, Linda and Takeshi Akaogi of Akaogi Farm in Westminster West, Vermont have been experimenting with rice as a potential new crop for wet areas in existing farmland that are unsuitable for traditional agriculture. Through Northeast SARE grants they have developed an organic rice growing system, field trialed rice varieties for cold climates, and conducted production comparisons. Ultimately, their research proved that rice varieties from Hokkaido, Japan tend to be the most adapted to the climate at their farm, and that rice can be grown productively in the northeastern United States with yields of at least two tons an acre. Over the next few years, they will work with the McCouch Rice Laboratory at Cornell University to develop educational materials for organic growers interested in rice production in the northeastern United States. For those interested in learning more, check out this link to the 4th Annual Northeast USA Rice Conference scheduled for Saturday, August 3, 2013 at Akaogi Farm.

Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, has been working with local producers for over three decades continuously seeking out locally raised ingredients and integrating them into his menus at the various culinary establishments he has been associated with through the years. He won the James Beard award as the Northeast’s best chef in 2004, while at Fore Street, where he has been since opening it in 1999.

In his presentation “Loaves and Fishes: Telling Maine’s Story with Food” Hayward shared a new miche (“country bread” or “round loaf” in French) under development at Standard Bakery in Portland, Maine. The whole wheat flour was milled and sifted at Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine. For the past six weeks, Hayward has combined this with the Pane Francese (slightly flattened sourdough) also made for him by Standard Bakery in Fore Street’s bread basket.

chef Sam Hayward holding a piece of Hiramasa

Next up, Hayward offered a raw taste of Hiramasa (“Maine Yellow Tail”) that was raised in a recirculating enclosed aquaculture system he described as being less polluted than the conventional net pen farms where fish are being raised in crowded conditions in Maine and Canada. When introduced to the fish at Fore Street, he said they had been out of the water for less than five hours and that their appearance; the red gills, clear eyes, and firmness of the flesh floored him.

As a segue out of a conversation on ecologically informed fish farming, to an introduction on terroir (a French term, often associated with wine, which can be translated as "a sense of place"), Hayward focused on the Maine sea salt he sprinkled on the Hiramasa. He advised that anyone who wants to understand the concept of terroir should taste salt that has essentially been evaporated under the same method from different locations within the Gulf of Maine.

Hayward began closing the loop on his presentation by talking about what iconic foods, the whole foods not dishes, one associates with Northern New England. He ticked off lobster, potatoes, and blueberries. However, he said he would add dried beans, clams, rooted vegetables, all berries, mussels, oysters, and apples.

A loyal member of John Bunker’s Out on a Limb Heritage Apple CSA, Hayward (who I’ve run into while picking up my share) takes part of his share of apples to Fore Street where he would slice several so the staff could taste what he describes as an astonishing array of varieties.

“I think of our menu as a sort of skeletal narrative about everything that is happening in Maine, and I mean skeletal because we try to do it in the fewest words possible to give you a sense of what to expect when it finally arrives at your table, but not so much it’s a build up we can’t meet,” said Hayward, whose  knowledge and enthusiasm for Maine ingredients continues to influence chefs and food lovers to broaden their boundaries of what is considered Northern New England food.

To learn more about Hayward, check out this article Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote for Food & Wine magazine. 

For more information on the Kneading Conference and Maine Grain Alliance go here. Dates have not been announced yet for 2014.

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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