The Rise of Artisanal Flour

Baking flour is the next ingredient to get the artisanal treatment in cutting-edge kitchens.

When Jared Van Camp, the owner and executive chef of Nellcôte Chicago, walked away from the 2009 Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy, he had an ambitious goal: to make the most authentic pizza stateside. To do that, he knew store-bought flour wouldn’t cut it. “I was intrigued by the fact that in Italy, the flour used in restaurants was local to them,” he says. “Pizzerias in America were using that same flour, but the amount of miles and the carbon footprint inherent in that process didn’t make sense to me.” He searched locally, but came up short.

Searching for Superfine

Finely ground double-zero flour is the key to proper pizza, so Van Camp had a North Carolina company build a custom flour mill with a pneumatic sifter that could yield those superfine results. In his restaurant’s basement, Van Camp uses this stone contraption daily to transform heritage wheat sourced from regional farmers into fresh batches of high-quality flour. In addition to his pizza crust, the flour also makes its way into house-baked baguettes, brioche and focaccia, and all the pastas.

Grain Solos

Cooking requires consistency, one of the key benefits when you reach for a 5-pound sack of Gold Medal. Yet hand-milling (after a little practice) provides the same benefit, but with flavors that are fresh, more nuanced and truly original. Bob Klein, owner of Oliveto, in Oakland, feels so strongly about the cooking benefits of small-batch flour that he formed his own small milling collective, called Community Grains, in 2007. The mill churns out whole-grain pastas and stone-milled flour for his and a handful of other restaurants. “There is so little information about wheat out there: how was it farmed, who milled it, what was the temperature of the wheel,” Klein says. “With the flour you buy in the supermarket, or from a distributor, all you know is that the sack will behave like the last one.”

The Terroir of Wheat

Flour milling is also gaining traction for its connection to the past, says Cathy Whims, chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland, Oregon. “Getting closer to the source ties into the idea of slow food and finding a real-life connection to our history,” she says. “I was in Calabria recently, and was reminded that we always consider and grasp the idea of wine terroir, but not food terroir, which is what every family instills up there. They know: where it grows is hugely important to how it will taste”

Grist Gripes

At Taquitoria, a gourmet taquito shrine on New York’s Lower East Side, partner Brad Holtzman takes a more cynical view of these artisanal inclinations, comparing them to Hollywood’s oversaturated film industry. “It’s rare to see something on the big screen that is essentially a new concept,” he says. “That’s why filmmakers are happy to take a successful film, and remake it with their spin. Farm-to-table restaurants, burger joints and modernist concepts have been opening and closing for decades.” Still, he admits these locavore leanings won’t disappear anytime soon. “Like movie studios, restaurateurs are taking a successful product like flour and are improving it—or at least trying to,” Holtzman says. “And if the market supports it, I guess don’t knock the hustle.”

IN HOUSE: Restaurants where next-level artisanal ingredients are being born

+ Noma, Copenhagen
The Ingredient: Spices made from woodruff and seaweed

+ Grey Plume, Omaha
The Ingredient: Buttermilk cheese

+ Blue Bottle Coffee Co., San Francisco
The Ingredient: Sea salt made from San Francisco Bay water

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