SKOWHEGAN — When local producers of specialty foods disappear, the knowledge of how to make those products – whether it’s cheese, wine, beer or bread – disappears, too.

That was part of the message Thursday from Francis Percival of London, the first of two keynote speakers addressing the 11th annual Kneading Conference at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds. His address Thursday morning – “How cultures shape culture: Clusters, identity, and tasting the difference” – drew on his work on farmhouse cheese production around the world.

Though Percival spoke of cheese, he made a direct link to grain production in Maine.

Francis Percival was keynote speaker during the 2017 Kneading Conference in Skowhegan on Thursday. Staff photo by David Leaming

“What’s incredibly interesting to me is how these parallel industries – these agricultural products – raise many similar issues to learn for each other,” he told the gathering. “I am certainly learning a huge amount from meeting a collection of grainiacs up in Maine, and it’s interesting to think about what, hopefully, we might be able to bring for you from the experience of the cheese industry.”

Percival spoke about why some regions have thriving communities of small-scale producers, while others, even within the same country, are dominated by industrial production. He also examined the relationship between the end product and farming systems, and discussed the best ways to direct and fund research to solve problems unique to small-scale production and how to develop an identity that consumers can taste so as to highlight the differences in each local product.

Percival, who writes on food and wine for The World of Fine Wine, compared British farmhouse cheese-making to the burgeoning grain-based artisan bread-baking, milling and brewing culture in Maine. Once the breadbasket of New England, central Maine lost its bread-baking way when large-scale wheat production took hold in the Midwest.

Now operations such as the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan have helped reinvigorate bread baking in the state, as evidenced by the Kneading Conference, where this year’s “bread buff” participants hail from 27 states, three Canadian provinces and seven other countries.

“It’s a summer camp of sorts,” Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, told the gathering Thursday morning about the “earth to table” events on tap for Thursday and Friday. “You can call us grainiacs.”

Participants at the 2017 Kneading Conference, including Stu Silverstein, left, who conducted a workshop on building an earth oven, look over flour, books and baking items. Staff photo by David Leaming

Grist mill founder Amber Lambke, who also is chairman of the Maine Grain Alliance, the Kneading Conference’s host organization, said that while Percival’s expertise is in wine and cheese, he drew a clear parallel with Maine’s rising grain economy.

“Its foundation is based in agriculture, soils, climate and region,” Lambke said. “He speaks well to the impact of a food industry to form a cluster in a region that benefits the economic viability of an area.”

Starting with a 2006 Brookings Institution economic study of Maine, Lambke said the state has been talking about the clusters that Percival referred to as a strategy for economic development. She said there are technology clusters, craft beer clusters and grain clusters – places where those goods and services work with one another to build economic opportunity.

“In the case of grains, the makeup here at this conference is a cluster,” she said. “We’ve got bakers, millers, brewers. We’ve got researchers, marketers, chefs – all people that interface and need each other around this topic of grains.”

Percival was the Louis Roederer Best International Wine Columnist in 2013 and Pio Cesare Food & Wine Writer of the Year in 2015. In addition to The World of Fine Wine, his work has appeared in Decanter and the Financial Times in the United Kingdom and Culture, Saveur, and Gourmet in the United States. With Bronwen Percival he is the coauthor of “Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese,” coming in September from the University of California Press.

Percival also teaches classes for Neal’s Yard Dairy and co-founded and hosts the London Gastronomy Seminars, a long-running series of lectures and talks in London dedicated to making the technical side of food and drink fun and accessible.

The Kneading Conference was launched in 2007 as a collaboration of Lambke, area bakers, chefs, millers, brewers, community volunteers and Maine Wood Heat of Skowhegan, makers of wood-fired ovens.

The conference includes kitchen workshops, guest speakers on grain farming and oven building, baking demonstrations and panel discussions that focus on handcrafted bread, wood-fired oven cooking, types of flour and grains, and the role of grain in the Maine economy.

Lambke said that a few years into the conference, local people began inquiring about the activities and wanted to taste for themselves what was going on. That was the beginning of the Artisan Bread Fair, which is held on a Saturday and makes the conference a three-day event.

The Artisan Bread Fair, which last year drew about 3,000 people to sample bread and pastries, as well as pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday on the Skowhegan state fairgrounds. Books and equipment for baking at home will be available, and professional bakers will be on hand to answer questions.

The fair also will feature live music, exhibits of antique baking tools and kitchen linens, demonstrations and Maine-made food.

Admission is free, but there is a $3 parking fee.

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

filed under: