A healthy return to ancient whole grains
“Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king.”
—Louis Bromfield, American novelist and advocate of scientific agriculture (1896–1956)
Inside Barton Springs Mill off Highway 290, owner James Brown reaches into a large, couch-sized freezer that holds his precious cargo of heirloom seeds. He rummages around, looking for a particular zip-locked plastic bag he wants to show off. It’s full of beautiful green corn kernels from the south of Mexico, a region where the Zapotec people have been milling these kernels for centuries.
“It’s called Oaxacan Green Corn,” James says, beaming with pride. He lets a handful of the frozen emeralds slide through his fingers back into the bag. “They still make their tortillas and tamales from this, and it retains the green color when they cook it. We’ve had some discussions with people in New Mexico and Arizona about bringing some of these indigenous corns here to grow them so we can make sure they don’t go extinct.”
James’s background and the journey that brought him to this point are unique. He grew up in Pasadena, Texas, and spent most weekends at the family farm in Madisonville. He has fond memories of helping his father plant basic rye grass for cattle. “I had this great little seed broadcaster that I’d strap on. The hopper would spread seeds evenly so you’d get better coverage, and I did 77 acres that way,” he recalls.
After high school James earned a bachelor’s of music at the University of Houston, then a culinary arts degree from The Art Institute of Houston a few years later, and from there he worked with a number of acclaimed chefs. In the late nineties, he switched gears to follow his passion in music, which took him to New York City, where he pursued a doctorate in historical musicology from CUNY and NYU. Soon after the attacks of September 11th, Brown returned home to Texas and became the music director for the First Presbyterian Church of Austin. He currently leads the Saint Cecilia Music Series, a program that hosts world-renowned musicians and focuses on preserving the talents of the nearly-forgotten early composers. James also plays the pipe organ and the viola da gamba, a cello-like stringed instrument popular in the 1500s.
But James has remained passionate about the culinary arts too, so while he has not given up his day job in music, he has been busy every weekend at the mill, grinding heirloom grains into nutritious, fresh, whole grain flour. Customers can watch as James revs up his Osttiroler A1200, a magnificently hand-crafted mill imported from Austria. Its twin 48-inch stones weigh 1,500 pounds each, allowing him to grind 1,200 pounds of specialty whole wheat and rye berries a day.
“Look at this scarlet red,” says Brown, opening another bag of frozen seeds. “These are called Bloody Butcher. I’ll be driving up to the Panhandle soon to deliver these seeds for planting at an organic farm in Tokio, Texas.” He will collect the harvest this fall and mill it soon after. Next, James holds up his prized possession, an ear of corn called Carl’s Glass Gem. The cob looks as if inlayed with a rainbow of kernels resembling rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls.
“It’s named after Carl, a part-Cherokee farmer from Oklahoma. It took him 30 years of careful selection to get his corn manipulated to this point,” James explains. “Each year at harvest, he would look for an ear with that special variety that he wanted to see going forward. I was privileged enough to get two acres’ worth, and I know some chefs who would be more than thrilled to offer this beautiful corn to their customers. Plus, it comes with a great story that captures the imagination.”
The stories and history that come with each batch of heirloom seeds fascinates James and guides him in his seed preservation efforts. Since the Neolithic Period over 10,000 years ago when wild grass seeds were first domesticated, people across all civilizations have collected, maintained, and even worshipped their seeds at harvest time. (Consider that the Romans prayed to Ceres, their goddess of agriculture, whose Latin name forms the root word for cereal today.) Ancient grains have been such a staple in the human diet that a tradition of breaking bread still exists in some form in every culture. Real bread, the unprocessed kind that utilizes the whole grain, is packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other immune-system enhancing compounds, and it is this kind of real bread that James wants to return to.
“People have a change of heart once they get a taste of this,” James says, smiling as he cuts through the crust of a dense, warm loaf of fresh bread. He has spent all morning milling this Turkey Red wheat flour, and after he finishes baking a few sample loaves to test for quality control, he will spend the afternoon delivering over 700 pounds of flour to local chefs and bakers, including local restaurants such as Thyme & Dough in Dripping Springs, Apis Restaurant & Apiary in Spicewood, and Easy Tiger and Odd Duck—both in Austin.
Barton Springs Mill operates Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit www.bartonspringsmill.com for further information about seasonal products, and follow @bartonspringsm on Twitter and www.facebook.com/bartonspringsmill for daily updates.