Carlyle Watt, head baker at Fire Island demonstrating how to make foccaccia.
Ben VanderWeele shows off a stalk of green wheat in July, 2015, about six weeks before harvest.
Carlyle Watt, head baker at Fire Island, said that the new breads will go on to the menu in March, 2016, baked twice a week. The VanderWeele wheat has about 10% to 12% gluten, perfect for Fire Island's whole wheat sourdough loaf. He also plans to use the Alaskan wheat in other breads, experimenting each week with new possibilities until he achieves a texture and taste that he likes.
Ben VanderWeele with a handful of his 2014 crop of wheat.
We talked about several aspects of wheat farming, and how they shaped Fire Island's choice to buy local. I asked about "organic" versus "natural, " knowing from my conversation with Ben VanderWeele last July that his wheat is not organic. Ben said at that time that Alaskan farmers have very few diseases in the soil, or natural pests, because agriculture is so new to the state. Although most of the Valley farmers supplement the minerals in the dirt with fertilizers, few use pesticides.
Carlyle's view is that although he would prefer organic, VanderWeele wheat has a low "carbon footprint," no pesticides, supports the local economy, and helps create more sustainable food supplies for Alaska. He said that Fire Island weighs all of those factors and more in deciding how to most ethically choose their flours and other ingredients. Eventually, he thinks that tasting the freshness and unique flavors of the Alaskan wheat will increase the market, and in the long run make it more feasible for local farmers to grow organic foods.
Ben VanderWeele talking about growing wheat in Alaska.
Fire Island's table mill for wheat and other grains.
The mill grinds two to three pounds of whole grains at a time, and takes a couple of minutes to turn them into flour. It gives a choice of grinds, from fine, for pastry, to a grind that maintains more of the bran. Carlyle said that if the grain is at room temperature when it goes into the mill, the flour comes out heated to about 100 degrees. To keep the flour from overheating, which changes the flavors, the bakery stores its grains out of doors in the winter and refrigerates them in the summer.
These are Fire Island's Rustic Wheat loaves; the new breads with local wheat will be similar.
We discussed the sourdough starters, and how they interact with the different grains. Carlyle said that sourdoughs, also known as natural yeast starters, are individual. A batch of yeast starter fed on rye flour has a distinctly more intense smell (Carlyle describes this as "funky" which in the baking business tend to mean something earthy and dark) than one fed on whole wheat, or on white (wheat) flour. Of the three, the white flour starter is often almost sweet in scent, while the whole wheat and rye are sour and can be intense. Fire Island's sourdough whole wheat breads will be made with the whole wheat starter, to highlight the flavors. He added that Fire Island has a number of customers who are sensitive to commercial yeasts, but who are fine with the sourdoughs made with the natural yeasts.
Carlyle weighing chunks of dough to assure that each bread loaf is the same so that they bake evenly.
Ben VanderWeele's wheat near harvest time, September 5, 2015, with the Chugach Mountains in the background.
Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop has two shops now, at 1343 G Street, near downtown Anchorage, and at 2530 East 16th Avenue, just off Lake Otis and DeBarr. They are open Wednesday through Sunday, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday.