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MOF&G Cover Spring 2010


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Dean Zoulamis
At the Kneading Conference, Dean Zoulamis talked about his Mother Oven Bakery in Bowdoinham. Photo by Tessa Burpee.

Celebrating Bread from Earth to Hearth

By Holli Cederholm

The Kneading Conference, held annually in Skowhegan, Maine, brings together people who love bread: from growing and milling the grains to baking and tasting the finished product, and everything in between. Each year amateur and professional bakers, farmers, earth oven enthusiasts and food fanatics gather for two days of seminars, hands-on workshops, social networking and, of course, delicious food.

Finding a Niche While Filling a Need

Growing grain in Maine is not new. Grain production in the northeastern United States dates back to the first European settlers, and even earlier if you include the maize cultivated by indigenous Americans. Somerset County, where the Kneading Conference now occurs, was a hub of wheat production in the mid 1800s; on average wheat grown in the area fed over 100,000 people annually.

However, the combined appeal of a longer growing season and fertile soil, with the help of transcontinental railroads, soon shifted America’s bread basket to the plains of Midwest. According to the Kneading Conference Web site (www.kneadingconference.com), “today less than 1% of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine.”

Changing that statistic is at the heart of the Kneading Conference. With more and more people turning to locally-produced food, for reasons of security and quality, the demand for Maine-grown and -ground grain is rising, and with it comes the need to revive traditional skills of growing and milling grains, and of baking with flour milled from whole grains.
Ciril Hitz
Ciril Hitz, author and instructor at Johnson and Wales, demonstrated bread shaping. Photo by Tessa Burpee.

The Kneading Conference is filling this need in a unique way: It concentrates on teaching progressive ideas on the art of wood-fired baking, oven making, grain growing and milling. Harold “Dusty” Dowse, a biology professor at the University of Maine at Orono, semi-professional baker, and repeat presenter at the Kneading Conference, praises the event as one of a kind. “There aren’t any other bread conferences except Camp Bread [an annual event sponsored by the Bread Bakers Guild of America]… The Kneading Conference is different from Camp Bread because it spans the spectrum. They’re just about bread,” said Dowse.

According to Amber Lambke, one of the founders of the Kneading Conference and the volunteer chair of the conference’s steering committee, the Kneading Conference owes some credit for its conception to Camp Bread. Albie Barden, of Maine Wood Heat, participated in a week-long Camp Bread event in San Francisco and returned to Maine with visions of creating something similar. “He realized there was nothing like it at the time on the East Coast,” said Lambke.

Lambke, one of Barden’s contacts, was focusing on revitalizing downtown Skowhegan and saw the potential of such an event in the area to do just that. Using a strategy for economic development called “cluster development,” Lambke starting connecting the dots: She identified gaps in the related industries of ovens, bread and grain, and recognized that those gaps could and should be bridged.

A number of Maine micro-bakeries were using Barden’s ovens, and others, such as Borealis Bread, were using Aurora Mills flour, which comes from grains grown and milled in Aroostook County. The steering committee decided to target such producers as their pilot conference participants and presenters.

It worked. After six months of planning, the inaugural event was held in July 2007 at Tewksbury Hall in Skowhegan and, according to climbing participant numbers and positive post-conference evaluations, the Kneading Conference was, and remains, a success.
Ciril Hitz
Ciril Hitz tended to hot loaves in the Le Panyol wood fired oven, loaned by Maine Wood Heat of Norridgewock. Photo by Tessa Burpee.

At the Conference

The Kneading Conference consists of two full days crammed with presentations on bread, from seed to loaf. Workshops cover both general and specific topics, from ancient grains to modern breeding efforts, from sourdough to sweet dough, from oven heat management to the perennial favorite, building an earth oven. Most of these workshops are designed to be interactive. Dowse said, “We make it as much hands on as possible.”

Participants braid dough into challah and peel pizza in and out of ovens. Those interested in learning the craft of oven building can engage in a clay oven workshop that lasts all day both days and culminates in a finished oven that is raffled off at the close of the conference. Some aspects of the conference, such as grain growing, are harder to make into a tactile experience. “We can maybe have a few test strips of grain and harvest at a workshop but beyond that … we would need our own farm,” said Dowse.

The conference brings in bread masters from across the country, including faculty from Johnson & Wales University. “We also have a terrific representation of bakers in Maine,” said Lambke, “including Borealis Bread, Standard Baking Company, Black Crow Bakery, Mother Oven Bakery, Stone Turtle Baking School and others.”

The conference isn’t just about signing up for seminars. “Over time it has become much more about the collateral effects within a group of people,” said Wendy Hebb, conference coordinator. “When I think back upon the Kneading Conference, participants learn a lot, but it’s really about what we do – talk, and eat and roll out dough… The sense of camaraderie and being in the act of doing is what really comes through on the end-of-conference evaluations.”
Dusty Dowse
Dusty Dowse spoke about managing heat in a wood fired oven. Photo by Tessa Burpee.

The evaluations also highlight the quality of the food served at the conference. The catering services provided by Billi Barker of Fire Fly Farm in St. Albans, Maine, have been heralded by participants and presenters alike. Barker sources seasonal ingredients from local farms and producers and works with presenters to use the ovens in the cooking process. Every conference thus far has included a wood-fired pizza lunch.

July 29 and 30, 2010

This year the Kneading Conference hopes to feature two keynote speakers, one for bread and one for grain. Hebb is pleased that one is Jeffrey Hamelman, director of production bakery and instructor of professional baking classes for the King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich, Vermont. “Not only is he a master baker, and there are only like 70-something in the whole country, but I think he’s funny,” said Hebb.

The conference also plans to tackle new topics this year, based largely on participant inquiries. Sprouted breads, gluten-free bread baking, malting grains for beer production, and baking with locally grown grains are just a few possibilities. A panel of farmers to address infrastructure and small equipment for harvesting and storing grains is also in the works.

While the Kneading Conference has been held at Tewksbury Hall in Skowhegan for the past three years, it is slated to move to the Skowhegan State Fair Grounds for the 2010 event. Lambke said, “We have loved our past location, but look forward to more space and the flexibility that comes with it.”

More space means the conference can accommodate more activities, such as camping and grain trials, but it does not mean more people. “Conference participants have resoundingly commented on the intimacy of the conference. After spending two days together, they comment ‘it feels like family,’” said Lambke. The Kneading Conference intends to preserve that feeling by capping registration around 200 participants.

Behind the Scenes and Beyond the Conference

“The Kneading Conference” refers both to the annual event and the organization that plans it. To avoid confusion, those doing the planning often refer to themselves as the steering committee, which consists of 20 or so volunteers and two part-time paid staff members: a lead coordinator and a financial liaison for Heart of Maine RC&D (the fiscal sponsor).

Lambke said, “The group brings together a unique, diverse cross-section of the community – farmers, bakers, oven builders, government workers, interested citizens, small business owners.” They do share commonalities: They are all from Maine and all love bread, or some part of its process.

The committee meets monthly, year-round, to plan the annual event. Hebb compiles plans for monthly meetings, organizes conference programming and handles public relations. “It is amazing to me how much time we put into it,” she said.

The group hopes to expand its presence in Maine to more than once a year by hosting more educational events, but this depends on funding.

A pizza baking workshop specifically geared toward children was held at the 2009 conference and was “wildly successful” in Lambke’s eyes. She would like to see the organization find funding to purchase a couple of portable wood-fired ovens for public workshops and demonstrations. “There is so much potential to go to schools and do outreach and education in the community.”

The Country’s First and Only Artisan Bread Fair

In 2009 the Kneading Conference decided to extend its annual event to include a third day, on which it hosted the first Artisan Bread Fair to celebrate breads of all kinds, some baked on site in masonry ovens while visitors watch. Fairgoers can sample artisan bread, observe wood-fired oven demonstrations, participate in a grain seed exchange, talk with professional bakers, and peruse the best books and tools known to the baking trade. Best of all, the fair is free and open to the public.

“There were ovens everywhere, and smoke pouring out," said Dowse, who was baking pita for sale to fairgoers last year. The flour for the pitas was an exhibit in itself: Maine-grown ‘Red Fife,’ a wheat variety of Canadian heritage, was milled on site.

Dowse, who first envisioned the fair, anticipated positive public response to it but was amazed by the actual attendance. “The people came in droves. It’s the only artisan bread fair in the country,” he said. “All of the vendors sold out [of bread]… there was not a crumb to be found.”

Dowse expects the July 31, 2010, event will have substantially more vendors; some contacted him right after the last fair wishing to participate after they heard about the success.

Dowse also hopes to incorporate more hands-on workshops, such as bake your own pita or how to make sourdough pancakes, thus adding another educational dimension to the fair. Another proposed educational component for next year will allow amateur bakers to experience the production side of things: Participants in a “production baking workshop” at the conference will bake and sell goods via a Kneading Conference booth at the fair.

Connecting Community with Ovens, Bread and Grain

After attending the 2007 conference, Lambke realized that certain obstacles blocked the resurgence of local grain production. Even if farmers wanted to produce more wheat or oats, mills were needed to grind the grain into flour.

Lambke partnered with Michael Scholz, a baker, wheat grower and co-founders of the Kneading Conference, to start their own community-based micro mill. “The milling project is a direct result of the conference,” said Lambke.

They dedicated a year or so to looking for examples of operating mills in Vermont, Oregon, South Carolina and New Brunswick. However, it was the mill that Lambke saw while taking an “introduction to flour milling class” at Kansas Sate University that confirmed that their prospective mill site – the now defunct Somerset County Jail – would work. Lambke and Scholz purchased the building for $65,000 from Somerset County and are in the renovation process, using funds from the Quimby Foundation and a Community Development Block Grant.

The structurally sound building is 14,000 square feet with multiple floors allowing for equipment to align, and it is soundproof. “It’s a beautiful building located in Victorian downtown Skowhegan… it deserved a vital use,” said Lambke. Along with housing the Somerset Grist Mill, which will be able to clean, de-hull and stone-mill a variety of locally produced grains for sale across the state, the building will become home to a locally supported grocery café and cheese cave. “It may become a year-round site for year-round educational opportunities … a common ground where you get to know your community,” said Lambke.

For more information about the mill, the Kneading Conference, or the Artisan Bread Fair, visit www.kneadingconference.com.

About the author: Holli Cederholm is a graduate of Unity College and, with Brian St. Laurent, a Farmer in Residence at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Unity.


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