SKOWHEGAN, Maine — More than 200 grain enthusiasts gathered at the Kneading Conference here last week to kneel at the altar of artisan bread.
Amid the yeasty firmament, a dozen sat underneath the bleachers at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon to hear chef-turned-pasta maker Steve Gonzalez spread the magic of fresh, small-batch pasta.
While loaves from a village bakeshop made with local grains is the Holy Grail of the buy-local movement, the other well-loved carb is now part of the conversation.
“Pasta is a new frontier and in many ways more versatile than bread,” said Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance, who runs the Kneading Conference, now in its ninth year. This year pasta was a hot topic.
Though balmy and humid weather made the nearby wood-fired ovens all the more ferocious, Gonzalez’s talk, “Breaking New Ground with Whole Grain Pasta, Brooklyn Style,” attracted a coolly focused group.
His growing Sfoglini Pasta Shop in Brooklyn has top New York chefs clamoring for custom runs of signature penne, rigatoni and a panoply of other shapes and tastes. From organic and seasonal pastas such as chili pepper fusilli and radiators made with spent malt from The Bronx Brewery, Sfoglini is a gourmet go-to on shelves at Dean and Deluca and for chefs at top-tier hotels like the Mandarin Oriental.
Food artisans are watching Gonzalez, who is riding the wave of this breaking trend that is starting to reach Maine.
“We made a million in sales this year,” said Gonzalez, who switched his plan from a pasta restaurant to a pasta shop when he saw potential.
Though located in a hyper-local food economy, he has found a niche with custom pasta in New York’s hippest borough. “No one’s doing it,” said Gonzalez. “There are 30 people doing cupcakes, 20 making cookies. No one is making dry pasta.”
In Maine, Pasta Fresca by Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer makes fresh pasta and Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees fame, has launched a dry pasta business called Ravens Nest made and sold in her restaurant in Winter Harbor.
On Saturday, Quimby peddled garlic-chive, kale, carrot and butternut squash in shapes from bucatini to pappardelle to rotini at the bread fair, all made with produce from her farm in Gouldsboro.
“I think it’s a great way to use fresh eggs and fresh veggies that are locally produced,” said Quimby by email. “The only caveat is that the flour to make the pasta is not grown in Maine. Semolina flour, the best type for pasta, requires very cold winters, but very hot, dry summers. It is best grown in the northern plains states in the U.S. and Canada.”
In New York state, one miller and baker is doing what he can to play a part in the fresh pasta renaissance.
Across the country, “people are starting to open up their minds and their mouths,” said Don Lewis of the Community Grain Project, who attended the talk.
Lewis grows hundreds of acres of wheat in Dutchess County, New York, at Wild Hive Farm. And Gonzalez is buying as much as he can to make his pasta as local and fresh as possible. Lewis’ stone-milled hard red flour is featured in Sfoglini’s whole-grain blend. “We have entered a new realm,” said Lewis. “There is a lot of pasta-making now.”
In a short time Sfoglini has gone from a 700-square-foot facility to 4,000 and experiments with unusual varieties from organic rye to cuttlefish ink spaccatelli. A 16-ounce bag retails for around $9.
Though not currently using Maine Grains, Gonzalez made a buckwheat pasta with the Skowhegan milled product and offered it as samples.
“It’s easy to talk about local vegetables and fruit and not talk about where the grain comes from,” said Jenn Sheridan, sales representative for Maine Grains. People like Gonzalez “broaden the horizons of diners.”
Aimee Good, who grew up in Monticello and attended the session, was encouraged. Though currently focused on garlic, she has taken over 40 acres of fallow fields on her father’s potato farm in Aroostook County to explore agrarian options. Growing grain for pasta is now on her radar.
“It’s exciting for someone at my scale right now to think that a chef would be willing to build their product around the grain economy here,” said Good.
The more successful outfits like Sfoglini are, the more small farmers can think of scaling up.
To Lambke, “what he [Gonzalez] is doing is creative, versatile, and very supportive in building a local food shed.”