Kneading Conference West

Restoring grains to your community

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Last September, I had the opportunity to attend the second annual Kneading Conference West at the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

The words “Kneading Conference” may not suggest much except bread baking to most people, but there is so much more to it. It was more like a music festival than a professional conference. Everyone there was equally obsessed with bread and grains, ready to talk with everyone else about it, and having a great time.

During the three days of the event, I wandered in and out of workshops where attendees were learning to bake pies with just-picked fruit, tasting different heritage wheat varieties, mixing mud for a hand-built clay oven (which was raffled off at the end of the conference), or arguing about how to create infrastructure for a growing local grain economy. Some classes were geared toward the home baker, others very definitely toward the professional, but everyone was welcome to watch any of the sessions (as long as they fit inside the room).

In one tent I watched a workshop on flatbreads with cookbook author and photographer Naomi Duguid. She made Afghan naan, banana flatbreads from Burma, and a Finnish barley bread. As each bread came out of the wood-fired oven, it was cut into small pieces and passed around the audience. When a basket of naan failed to reach the back row a small riot broke out—one of the only times during the conference that good cheer threatened to fail.

While the flatbreads were being fought over on one side of the tent, an intense class on wood-fired pizza was being presented on the other side, covering tools, ovens, recipes and flour. Each attendee got to shape, sauce and fire their own pizza, resulting in more than a dozen pizzas needing to be eaten (which didn’t seem to be a problem, thanks to hungry passersby). As a friend of mine who attended the class observed, “that was as much fun as it’s possible to have without getting arrested.”

What is this amazing event? The original Kneading Conference, now in its seventh year, takes place in Skowhegan, Maine. Its West Coast younger sibling is the brainchild of WSU Extension director and wheat scientist Dr. Stephen Jones, who gave a keynote address at the Maine conference and fell in love with the idea of bringing people together over the idea of restoring grains to their community. Along with a number of bakers, millers and agriculture advocates, Jones created a separate conference with a focus on the grain infrastructure of the West Coast.

Much of the tone of each conference is set by the keynote speakers. Last year’s keynote addresses were from Duguid, who spoke about the role of bread and grains in human culture, and Andrew Whitley of the organization Bread Matters in Scotland. This year the speakers will be Thor Oechsner and Darra Goldstein. Oechsner, the grandson of a German baker, grows a variety of grains on 600 acres of land in the Finger Lakes region of New York and is co-owner of Farmer Ground Flour. Goldstein is the founding editor of the food journal Gastronomica and the author of four cookbooks.

This year’s conference schedule includes a tour of the many different wheat varieties being grown at the Extension, a workshop on making buckwheat soba noodles from scratch, equipment needs for both commercial grain farms and bakeries, using a tandoor oven, a discussion of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, a hard cider tasting, and an entire session on braiding challah.

There’s also a choice of field trips, one to a local tandoor oven manufacturer and one to a farm, a mill and a bakery. Scott Mangold of the Breadfarm in Edison, who tests heritage wheat varieties for the Extension, will present a class on using locally produced flours in baking, and Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting Company is hosting a seminar on the supply chain from farmer to maltster to brewer or distiller. Also, George DePasquale of Seattle’s Essential Baking will again be offering his workshop on making sourdough at home, which was one of the highlights of last year’s conference (“the mixing stage is where you work out your issues with your mother. In shaping, be gentle”).

Meals, not surprisingly, are amazing. Last year conference food ranged from pizza baked onsite; tamales; quesadillas made with chard and beets; hot, fresh wood-fired bagels with cream cheese and lox; barbecue; bread and desserts left over from various workshops; and lots of goodies from Breadfarm. You may find yourself in a carbohydrate daze for the next week, but you’ll be inspired to go home and start baking.

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