It offers no plump boules or yeasty baguettes. There are no loaves for sale here at all. But this squat, beige building set amid western Washington farmland is one of the most exciting places in the country for bread. Here, some of the hottest culinary names—Tartine’s Chad Robertson, Maria Hines of Seattle’s Tilth, Philadelphian pasta maestro Marc Vetri—have come to dabble with dough. And, every year, a who’s who of baking—and milling and brewing and any other work that involves the crops from which bread is made—descends for the annual Grain Gathering, a three-day conference with seminars like “Natural Leavening: Practices and Principles” and “Multi-Grain Baking.”
Here, gutsy experiments yield unheard-of loaves: a baguette containing buckwheat and, for sweetness, fermented rice; a polygot “horse bread” of hard red wheat, Scottish bran, winter peas, flax and camelina and sunflower seeds.
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The Bread Lab, as this place is called, is at the heart of a Washington State University research center set up to help local farmers sell what that they grow. Grains are secondary crops on the Skagit Valley’s small, diversified farms; they’re planted to replenish nitrogen depleted from the soil by other crops: flowers, potatoes, cabbages. For decades, they were sold cheap on the commodities market—until 2008, when Dr. Stephen Jones came along.