SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Every July for the past nine years, the wheat elite gather in this riverfront town for the rising of baguettes, vegetable-topped focaccia, and deep, dark, nourishing rye.
They fly in from Denmark, drive over from Buffalo and trek across New England with stalks of wheat in their pockets and starters in their bags to attend the Kneading Conference run by the Maine Grain Alliance. Some have visions of the perfect boule, others are intrigued by puff pastry or want to build an earthen oven.
Amber Lambke, co-founder of the conference, says the rise of locavore culture lends the event — which offers hands-on workshops, demos and educational talks — more credence each year. Two hundred and fifty people are expected to attend July 30 and 31 at the Skowhegan State Fairground. An artisan bread fair follows Aug. 1.
“There is an interest in sourcing ingredients like flour more locally,” said Lambke, who also runs Maine Grains, a wholesale, stone-milled grain company in Skowhegan. “There is a realization that there are flavor differences and baking differences and nutritional differences in freshly milled whole-grain products.”
This year’s conference unites an array of leaders in the growing grain economy. Steve Gonzalez of Sfoglini Pasta in Brooklyn, who experiments with barley malts for specialty pasta in his popular shop, is an anticipated speaker.
“When I look around at the small pasta operations popping up in the Northeast, he has a level of experimentation I haven’t seen,” said Lambke, who first discovered Gonzalez’s barrier-breaking pastas at a farmers market in New York City. “He does research and development with new local grains, spent malting barley … they strike me as innovators.”
Gonzalez opened his own restaurant in Philadelphia and has created pasta tasting menus for top chefs. He will share research he has conducted on turning ancient grain, herbs and vegetables such as fennel and beets into flavorful fusilli.
This year’s keynote speaker, Peter Reinhart, a master breadmaker and high priest of pane, kicks things off at 9:15 a.m. Thursday.
To Lambke, Reinhart is the world’s most respected writer and baker on whole-grain baking. He has won three James Beard awards for his books, including “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” which was named the book of the year in 2002. Reinhart teaches at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will discuss bread’s power as a symbol of transformation with his talk: “Bread has a story to tell.”
Another trendsetter is Joseph Bossen of Vermont Bean Crafters. Bossen makes cookies and pasta using legumes and talks about the “boom of beans” and the reinvention of an American staple.
Though not a grain, legumes work well as rotation crops for farmers, said Lambke. If Bossen’s ideas catch fire, beans could suddenly be in demand.
“Grains are heavy nitrogen feeders and legumes fix nitrogen in the soil,” said Lambke. “If farmers are looking to move away from monocropping and plant something else,” beans are a smart choice.
Bossen will explain how to market this value-added invention and demonstrate using beans in baked goods.
The wholesome conference, held inside and out, isn’t a fresh bread bonanza, though samples can be found. This is a business-minded event designed for new ideas to flourish.
Mingling is encouraged.
“The best reason to be here physically is the networking,” said Lambke, who rattled off successful businesses spurred by the Kneading Conference, such as Biscuits and Co. in Biddeford and Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls.
You can get technical knowledge by meeting and following experts, but “inspirations and connections” made in person are what this conference is all about.
Forty percent of attendees return for a reason.
“They had a great experience and want to stay on top of what’s fresh and new,” said Lambke. “In the grain economy in Maine and across the country new things are happening all the time. We put forth what’s new and innovative and people are inspired.”
The Kneading Conference, Thursday and Friday, July 30-31, is $300, which includes meals. The artisan bread fair, from 9 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, is free. For information, visit kneadingconference.com.