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The Grain of Truth

What if it turns out that gluten-phobes are eliminating the wrong thing? If a dogged consortium of bakers, scientists, and wheat freaks has anything to do with it, gluten-full breads, pastas, and pizzas might just be okay to relish again.

Old-world or new-world aside, health is clearly at the root of getting people to re-embrace the whole-grain movement. That’s why Klein is also talking to scientists, from biochemists to epidemiologists, in his quest to bring sexy back to bread. He likes to quote a recent study conducted by a team of scientists in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. It concerns the aleurone, a single cell layer just inside the bran layer that contains a combination of magnesium, iron, zinc, and ferulic acid. “It’s these things that have such a positive impact on long-term health,” Klein says. “But up until now, healthcare providers have presented dietary fiber as the most significant element in counteracting the risk of chronic disease.” The report contends that it’s the nutrients associated with fiber, not the fiber itself, that make the difference. Klein thinks, but isn’t sure, that the health effects of the aleurone layer are available to us only if the wheat is stone-milled. “Steve Jones has a little roller mill in his lab [at Washington State], and the aleurone is the stuff that is scraped off by the rollers,” he says.

Another theory that’s being tossed around is linked to an Italian study showing that long-fermented natural leaveners (versus the commercial yeast used by most large-scale bakeries) can make bread more digestible by breaking down offending peptides in wheat proteins. One baker known for the results of this process is Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. Robertson—who has become internationally famous for his country bread, which contains 50 percent white flour—has long experimented with breads made with ancient grains, tinkering with everything from emmer to kamut and einkorn. But eight months ago, he finally started selling these breads at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop, and he’s in the middle of writing a cookbook about them.

But Robertson isn’t driven to make breads using rare wheat varietals ground whole and long fermented just because they’re good for the gluten-intolerant—something that his own wife, pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, actually is. He’s doing it because he likes to tinker. “For me, the whole grain is just another flavor thing. So, for the last year, I’ve been trying to figure out other ways to approach it.”

Among the whole-grain breads Robertson sells at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop is a porridge bread that jiggles beneath its crust when poked and has an almost custardy, sticky texture when you slice into it. Making whole-grain breads that aren’t lead bricks isn’t an easy task because the bran in whole wheat flour acts like little knives, cutting up the gas-trapping gluten that gives bread its rise and pockets of air. Out of all the whole-grain breads that I taste—and I taste a lot—Robertson’s are the only ones that you can just sink into. If Klein and his posse of wheat freaks are ever going to solve the whole-grain conundrum, they're going to need to reproduce a lot of breads like Robertson’s.

A few weeks after my Oliveto lunch, I go to toast up my usual breakfast of a slice of Vital Vittles whole wheat bread, produced by a great, if hippie-dippie, bakery that started in Berkeley in 1976. I glance at the label, which mentions that it’s made with organic, stone-ground wheat. As the Vital Vittles website explains: “This traditional method of milling protects the germ and important outer layer of the grain, which are destroyed by the heat created in conventional steel-roller milling. We believe that fresh, properly ground flour is the key to superior bread.” Clearly, what we might have disregarded as crunchy, academically unproven diatribe is now reentering the modern culinary conversation. However, Vital Vittles leaves its description at that. It does not indulge in elaborate flavor profiles or precious recountings of its product’s provenance—something to which we have become accustomed in today’s world of food fetishists.

Which brings my mind reeling back to Oliveto. I’m one glass of wine into lunch, trying to grasp what Klein is pontificating about. But by now, my stomach pangs are taking control of my brain. In the nick of time, a hard red, winter wheat pasta is served, as well as a sausage pizza with a whole wheat crust. At this point, I’m very happy to be eating food instead of intellectualizing it. The pasta is tossed with Bolognese, a sauce that could make cardboard taste good, but the edge of the whole wheat pizza crust has to stand on its own. The word “scrumptious” does not come to mind, but the crust does have a pleasant, down-to-earth, nutty character that commands me to pay attention instead of gobbling it down mindlessly.

Still talking, Klein pauses to sigh—the weight of the whole-grain world on his shoulders. So much tenacity, so little time. “I guess I’m trying to do everything,” he says. But if Klein and Ponsford and their merry band of bread hackers manage to pull off the trick of reprogramming our wheat-consuming tastes—and I believe that they can—gluten-phobes may find themselves saying yes to the bread basket and the pasta bowl, and being healthier for it. And then, our 12-step program complete, we can say goodbye forever to our old friend, cocaine—I mean, white bread.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco

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