If you're ever invited to dinner at Kirk and Maryanne Welton's house and there's a fresh-baked loaf of whole-wheat bread on the table, you'll know it's a special occasion.
Maryanne not only baked the bread, she and her husband grew the wheat in the backyard of their Palo Alto home and -- like the Little Red Hen of childhood fable -- winnowed and ground it, too.
The latest diet trends have turned wheat into a dirty word in some quarters; manifestos maligning it are selling like hotcakes (gluten-free, of course). But the Weltons are among the growing number of locavores and gourmets who have discovered the pleasure of whole grains by getting back to the grind -- quite literally. They mill their own grain or find local millers doing it the old-fashioned way: in small batches on a stone mill.
The Weltons harvest about 10 pounds of wheat berries each year from their 12-by-30-foot "field." Kirk blows off most of the chaff with a leaf blower. The rest they pick off by hand.
Maryanne uses some of the wheat berries in casseroles, then grinds the rest with a grain mill attachment on a KitchenAid mixer she inherited from an aunt. She then turns the flour into bread and crackers.
Why go to all that trouble?
"I like doing something that's unique," she says. "There's also the contrast of living in Silicon Valley and still being connected to the earth that's very satisfying."
Of course, you don't need a golden field of waving wheat in your backyard to enjoy freshly ground flour. Some grocery stores' bulk sections are a gold mine for grains. Many have wheat berries (sometimes more than one variety), whole oats, buckwheat and barley. You name it. If it's a dried grain, it can be turned into flour.
All you need is a grain mill, which can be hand cranked or, more often, electric, which makes the job pretty simple. Once ground, whole grains have a shorter shelf life; if you grind more than you need for a recipe, keep the rest in a sealed container in the refrigerator, where it should last for a couple of months.
But there are other options, too.
"People who don't have the time or inclination to grind their own at home should have options for true whole grains," says Bob Klein, owner of Oakland's Oliveto restaurant and founder of Community Grains, a whole-grain company that grew out of a desire to know the origins of the flour used in his restaurant.
Klein found that getting access to even basic information -- such as the wheat variety and where it was grown and milled -- was nearly impossible in an industrial structure he calls highly secretive and restrictive.
Klein sought out California wheat farmers and started working with miller Joe Vanderliet at Certified Foods in Woodland. Vanderliet uses a stone mill to grind several varieties of wheat for Community Grains' line of whole-grain flours and dried pastas.
For those who want a firsthand look at the stone-grinding process, the historic Bale Grist Mill in Napa Valley offers weekend demonstrations and grinds wheat, spelt, corn, rye and buckwheat, which are sold at the mill.
It wasn't so long ago that all flour was milled the way Vanderliet and the Bale Grist Mill do it -- from whole grain, which includes the outer germ, bran and inner white endosperm. But white flour became a symbol of wealth and cultural refinement, so millers found ways to whisk away the germ and bran. As a consequence, the flavor, vitamins and nutrients they provided disappeared, too.
Whole-grain flour is sweeter and nuttier than white flour, and bread made with it is entirely different from plastic-wrapped, store-bought loaves of whole wheat.
One need only try Craig Ponsford's award-winning breads and baked goods at Ponsford's Place bakery in San Rafael to become a believer. His flour is also milled by Vanderliet. There's a flavor in his turnovers and croissants that goes well beyond butter, yet the pastry is still light and subtle enough not to compete with fillings such as grapefruit custard and mascarpone with almonds.
Klein says the flavor of the wheat can enhance certain dishes. At Oliveto, he discovered that penne made with the more strongly flavored hard red winter wheat was a perfect match for Bolognese sauce.
"It's a knock out," he says. "With plain, white pasta, it's not as delicious. It's not as rich."
The whole-wheat pastry flour from Bale Grist Mill results in tender, flaky biscuits; a batch of cornbread made with the freshly ground cornmeal is tremendous -- lighter, fluffier and sweeter than cornbread made with store-bought cornmeal.
It's those nuances in flavor and texture that differentiate flour that has been stone-milled by a professional and flour ground in home mills made of metal. The metal creates heat that can affect the flour's flavor and nutrition.
"Home-milled flour probably won't make a truly extraordinary French baguette, but for things like cookies or quick breads, it's great," Ponsford says.
Still, there's one advantage to a home mill that can't be found in even the best bag of flour at the store.
"There's a fragrance that comes off fresh-milled flour," Klein says, "that's really neat."
Community Grains products can be purchased at most Whole Foods markets, natural and specialty grocers throughout the Bay Area, including the Pasta Shop at Oakland's Rockridge Market Hall and Berkeley's Fourth Street, and online at MarketHallFoods.com. Find recipes for whole grain pasta dishes, polenta and more at www.communitygrains.com.
Bale Grist Mill grains are available at the mill on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Highway 29 between Calistoga and St. Helena in Napa Valley; www.napavalleystateparks.org.
Visit Ponsford's Place bakery at 117 Shaver St., San Rafael. Hours vary, open most Fridays and Saturdays; www.ponsfordsplace.com.
Looking for a home mill? Even Amazon carries flour mills for home use, including the Kitchenaid mixer attachment ($100 to $150) as well as hand-cranked and other electric varieties.