Appalachian Bakers Find Flavor, Community In Locally Stone-milled Flour
Keia Mastrianni calls her pies old fashioned.
"I want people to taste the love in each pie,” Mastrianni said.
Mastrianni runs Milk Glass Pie out of her home in Shelby, North Carolina. She's part of a new wave of bakers in Appalachia who are avid users of locally produced stone-ground flour.
Depending on the season, you can find Mastrianni whipping up everything from corn custard pies to tomato pies to lemon berry pies. Her recipes have roots in Southern culture, and so does the flour she uses from a local, stone-ground mill.
“I can see the whole grain in the dough," Mastrianni said. "It’s pleasant to look at, but it’s also full of flavor.”
Mastrianni says the flour's rich, distinct flavor makes her pies stand out. Flour is more complex than it seems. Each variety of wheat is different, and has a specific taste and texture that can be drawn out in the milling process. It can have a whole range of flavors, from bitter and tannic to nutty and rich to smooth and buttery.
“Whole grain flours just have flavor. They just taste like something,” Mastrianni said.
Wheat does not grow much in Appalachia, or in the Southeast. The climate just isn’t right — it’s too humid. It has been possible to use local produce, like heirloom apples or tomatoes, but flour is a different story.
So, local stone millers have stepped in to bridge the gap between bakers and grain farmers.
Jennifer Lapidus is founder of Carolina Ground, a flour mill based in Asheville, North Carolina that specializes in stone-ground flour. Carolina Ground started in 2012, as a part of a local grains movement. Lapidus sees the area surrounding Asheville, North Carolina as a great place for bakers like herself to be — the community is tight-knit. Many bakers, professional and amateur, see the value in locally milled flour.
What’s even more unique is that while Carolina Ground is used by bakers all over the south, including Mastriani, most of the wheat is actually grown in North Carolina.
The main benefit of using locally ground flour, though, is that small scale Millers like Lapidus focus on the milling process as well as the grain itself.
Each type of grain has a distinct look and taste, so Lapidus wants to make sure her flour reflects that. She said stone milling is the process that produces the features they’re looking for. It’s an ancient method of milling, likely the first, according to scholars.
With stone milling, the grains are slowly crushed between two huge, 48-inch circular stones that are kept below 100 degrees.
“We’re not going to just process it for its pure functionality and efficiency, but stone grind and retain what is rightfully there in terms of characters and flavor of the grain,” Lapidus said.
Stone milling has almost nothing in common with roller milling, which is how most flour you see on grocery store shelves is produced. Roller mills are super efficient, but Lapidus said the process takes much of the flavor out of flour.
In contrast, she said stone grinding results in a rich, nutrient-dense flour with a silky smooth texture.
“If you feel our flour it has a feel, an oiliness that grocery store flour just doesn't really have that same feel,” Lapidus said. “It’s really sexy. This flour is really beautiful.”
Thirty minutes from Asheville, in the small town of Marshall, North Carolina, baker Brennan Johnson is teaching a new generation of home bakers the value in locally stone-milled flour. Johnson runs the Walnut Schoolhouse, a one-room baking school.
Johnson grew up watching his father bake in the brick oven in his parents' backyard in Minnesota. Johnson fell in love with baking, too. When he graduated from college in 2016, baking was an easy career choice. So, he moved to Asheville, where the baking community thrives.
Johnson was inspired by bakers and millers, like Lapidus, who use uncommon grains and baking techniques.
“Flour is the base or the medium for making something, but not regarded as a flavor in itself,” Johnson said.
“One approach I often take is trying to pair the actual flavor of the grain I’m using. Each type of wheat has its own flavor. So, an Appalachian white wheat will be very creamy and mild, whereas Turkey Red can be very nutty and earthy.”
There are several challenges to using freshly milled flour. The oils that provide its flavor also mean it can spoil quickly, so many hobby bakers store it in the freezer to extend the shelf life and avoid fridge odors. And it can be harder to work with because whole grains soak up more liquid, so you’ll have to add a little extra if you’re substituting whole grain flour for all purpose flour in a recipe.
Cost is also an issue. Producing flour on a small scale means costs can be pretty high -- multiple times higher than commodity flour, even. This is something baker Keia Mastriani thinks about.
“I don't want it to become a luxury product where it's only for elite folks,” Mastrianni said.
So, Mastrianni and Johnson recommend combining more expensive flours with the all purpose or bread flour you buy in the grocery store. This saves money and still gives you a boost in flavor.
This is important because more people are catching on to these unique flours, and not just because of the pandemic. They’re becoming easier to buy and bakeries across the United States are working hard to support these local grain economies.
There may be drawbacks to using fresh, stone-milled flour, but it has a dedicated following and Mastrianni, Lapidus and Johnson are all confident that it’s here to stay.
Rachel Greene reported on a group of bakers in North Carolina who are using stone-ground flour -- a traditional way of processing flour. One of the bakers shared a recipe with Rachel for Buckwheat Chocolate Chip cookies, and Rachel gave it a try. She spoke with our co-host Caitlin Tan about how they turned out, how they compare to regular chocolate chip cookies and how just about anyone can make them.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.