Mirroring the latest trends in the local food movement across the country, Westchester bakers, brewers, and chefs are using regional grains and flours to create distinctive, healthier fare with new and richer flavors.
In colonial times, the Hudson Valley was the breadbasket of the country. Today, the region’s grain movement is gradually being revitalized, with local chefs praising Don Lewis of Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners for spearheading the trend. Lewis, a baker-turned-miller who wants to create a sustainable regional grain-based food system, encourages local farmers to grow heirloom grains and culinary professionals to use them.
Rich Parente, owner-executive chef of Brewster’s Clock Tower Grill, bemoans the “bastardization” of commercial flour and says Lewis took a giant risk 20 years ago to bring grains back to the Hudson Valley. Aside from the 1% of the population who have celiac disease, Parente believes that “people don’t have an intolerance to good grain.” He prepares house-made pastas using Wild Hive flour because it has a “different texture, more flavor,” bakes with their flours, and has used their multigrain hot cereal in a winter dessert with sweet-potato gelato.
Baking with regional grains forges a special connection between miller and baker, says Anne Mayhew of LMNOP Bakery, who uses only Wild Hive’s flour. Mayhew, influenced to use local, freshly milled flour by Amy Halloran’s book, The New Bread Basket, drives to Clinton Corners from Katonah every two to three weeks to pick up her flours. She chats with Lewis about how to use them in any of the 30-or-so breads in her repertoire, like her Bedford sourdough or rye, or in her frequent experiments. She appreciates that Lewis lends his baking expertise to milling. “That relationship is key to making our products what they are and, I hope [to] continually improve with the more I learn,” she comments.
At Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown Heights, freshly milled Wild Hive polenta has converted many customers who previously disliked polenta. The restaurant also offers cinnamon and challah rolls from Mustard Tree, neighboring bakers who use local, organic flour.
Chase Harnett, baker-owner at weekend pop-up bakery The Hudson Oven, uses flour from Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg, NY, for his French country sourdough. “Because they have lots of oils, fats, and certain proteins that can go bad,” he explains, “the germ and the bran are not shelf stable. But those are the things that introduce that depth, beautiful nutty flavor, and scent. Freshly milling is a way of preserving the essence of what a wheat berry and a certain grain is.”
Laurie Gershgorn of Ossining’s Good Choice Kitchen used Farmer Ground Flour’s polenta for years as a private chef before adding it to the café’s menu. “All their milled grains are really good,” she says. “They have integrity, they’re grown and milled in the state. They last longer; it’s fresher, and the nutrients are there… why should we truck things in when we can get them closer?” Polenta is a menu constant, either as a gluten-free bun for patties or tucked under tikka masala.
At Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, a portion of the private dining room was converted into a bakery five years ago, with a focus on freshly milled flours, including experimental varietals from NYS. Breads from the bakery often appear on the restaurant’s tasting menu, and are for sale at the Grain Bar, which offers Barber Wheat levain, croissants, muffins, and individual tarts.
The hashtag #thinkNYdrinkNY printed on the glasses at Sing Sing Kill Brewery in Ossining plainly states the local tenets of head brewer/co-owner Matt Curtin and co-owner Eric Gearity. Both cite the “amazing, artisanal” flavor, quality and freshness of regional grains. Their beers far surpass the 60% of New York State grains and hops required by their New York State Farm brewery license. Curtin says using local ingredients poses a creative challenge.
“These malts, hops, and their flavor profiles are all so specific,” he explains, “that to achieve something that meets a traditional style standard using 100 percent New York State ingredients is difficult.” They try to educate customers about what makes their beer different, and why it is important to drink it. “We have our own New York terroir,” notes Curtin. Cream ale is the most popular of their seven beers. “All of a sudden,” says Gearity, “you see customers light up because it’s the style they like drinking, but the flavor of it blows their minds.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who covers topics such as culinary history and anthropology, and the intersection of food and culture. She says there’s no going back now that she’s baked chocolate chip cookies with local, freshly milled flour. She lives with her husband and sons in Briarcliff Manor.