Next Step Produce in southern Maryland is reached by a winding, narrow dirt road littered with stones and potholes, impervious to GPS. Midway from the turnoff to the main farmhouse sits a tiny cottage, overdue a paint job, its sagging porch bedecked with drying T-shirts and canvas shorts, a performance-level bicycle tethered to the rail the only indication that its inhabitant is not a 10th-generation Hatfield. It’s the home of Heinz Thomet’s farmhand du jour, where Russell Trimmer, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and its business school, Wharton, once lived when he helped Thomet grow vegetables for local farmers’ markets and restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen. While at Next Step, Trimmer also worked with Thomet to cultivate a range of artisanal grains from buckwheat and rye to sorghum and even rice.
Set in a nearby clearing is Next Step’s farmhouse, along with several outbuildings—a storage shed for heavy equipment, hoop houses that birth off-season greens. Chickens and ducks wander the yard. Thomet’s wife, Gabrielle Lajoie, her long hair wrapped in a scarf, stops to wave. Thomet’s weathered skin, bushy amber beard and sly sense of humor bring to mind a New England archetype, although with the Yankee accent replaced by his Swiss-Germanic one.
“Heinz likes to test people,” Trimmer warns me. In fact, before he agreed to a meeting, Thomet, 57, quizzed me about local foods and organic techniques.
Thomet’s farming embraces science and sociology. He experiments with different varieties of grain, wondering if storing flour might affect its nutritional content, or if extended fermentation will prevent ailments associated with gluten. “Aged flour is nutritionally inferior,” he points out, “but has a higher ‘loft.’” A larger loaf of bread, even if it’s mostly air, sells at the grocery.
The fields on his 83-acre farm in Newburg, established in 2000, are a patchwork of plantings, many driven by local restaurants: purple barley from Tibet for Restaurant Nora, rye and wheat for Woodberry Kitchen. Thomet’s three acres of red winter wheat began with 800 seeds given to him five years ago by baker Sam Fromartz.
According to Trimmer, “Heinz is focused on true wheats that will yield enough to justify the economics of growing them and have good qualities for baking.”
Now the head bread baker at Woodberry Kitchen, Trimmer, 26, is helping to transition the flour in the restaurant’s larder to 100-percent locally sourced and 100-percent whole grain. It’s a tricky task. Trimmer bakes about 75 to 100 loaves of bread each day, along with 200-plus smaller bread products like English muffins and hoagie rolls for Woodberry’s parent company, Foodshed, which also operates Artifact, Parts & Labor and Grand Cru. (The output is increasing with Foodshed’s opening of Bird in Hand at the new Ivy Bookshop in Charles Village and a bakery slated for B-more Kitchen in Govans next spring.)
Diners, of course, expect bread that is toothsome and consistent. As of midsummer, about 70 percent of the 1,000-plus pounds of flour Trimmer went through each week was grown in Maryland and Pennsylvania. At the time, he was planning a shift to 100-percent whole grain bread for Woodberry’s dinner service, replacing the transitional 70-percent loaf he’d introduced in March. The new bread is chewy, the taste of wheat almost bitter on the tongue, the texture somewhat spongy from the water needed to counteract the thirsty bran. The crust is caramelized.
Not all Woodberry diners reacted positively when their breadbasket went from what chef and owner Spike Gjerde describes as “a detailed assortment of little treats: sourdough bread, quick bread, little biscuits”—most made from white flour—to slices of chewy dark bread with a tough, blackened crust. “People saw us as taking something away, because they couldn’t get their little cheddar muffins,” he says. But serving such treats, Gjerde contends, “wasn’t a thoughtful complement to what we were doing with food.”
And the unfamiliar flavor? “It’s another instance where something tastes like ¬something,” says the James Beard Award-winning chef. “Most of us would be hard pressed to identify the wheat flavor in something made with white flour.”
Even so, the consistency and versatility of white flour—stuff that has been sifted to 70 percent of its original weight to remove the germ and the bran—is still preferred for sandwich breads, pizza and pastries. And finding a whole grain alternative to all-purpose flour is one of Trimmer’s biggest challenges.
He has been working with Omar Beiler at Heritage Acres in Kinzers, Pa., whose stone milling process presses the germ into the starch—instead of removing it completely—to make a white-style flour.
Nutritionally and flavor-wise, Beiler’s flour is “close to whole grain,” says Trimmer. “But it has white flour character, so I can use it for baguettes and flatbread.” The only hitch has been consistency. Initially, he says, the percentage of bran would shift slightly from week to week, and he would have to adjust the water in his recipe to compensate: “It would take me a few days to get the formula right.” Trimmer worked with Beiler at Heritage Acres’ small mill until they developed a consistent product. Even so, says Trimmer, the flour isn’t as strong as he’d like: “When I use too much water, it falls apart. It’s really touchy.”
Wheat grown by Heinz Thomet at his farm is stronger, says Trimmer. It may be due to the warmer climate in southern Maryland, or to Thomet’s approach—his organic practices, his experimentation, his respect for nature. “Is eating an act of refueling or nourishing?” Thomet wonders. “What does food need to be nourishing?”
I often muse about places like Woodberry, where chefs share an obsessive attention to detail with people like Heinz Thomet. At the end of the day, all this fuss is about putting bread in a basket for folks paying upwards of $100 for dinner, after all. Why not just give them the cheddar biscuits? Gjerde likes to point out that the cornerstone of his business “is to return money to local growers.” But there’s more to it than that. Along with helping to support Thomet’s farm, his wife, their three children, their pet chickens—and, of course, the farm hand—the bread program at Woodberry is helping to underwrite a laboratory.
“We’re subsidizing a lot of good research that isn’t always done at the government level,” Trimmer explains. “We’re ensuring that farmers can grow in ways they would never be able to.” In the quest to establish a sustainable and regional food system, he adds, “grains are a crucial part of closing the gap.”