Artful loafing

The rise of New Mexico's artisan bakeries is bringing back a farming tradition

Sharon Niederman

When it comes to baking, natural simplicity has its virtues-ask anyone who's ever broken the golden brown crust of an artisan bread. These loaves are made the old-fashioned way: by hand. Starting with flour, water, salt, and yeast, they're baked to chewy tenderness on a hearth that re-creates the effect of a wood-fired oven. It's the kind of substantial, deeply flavorful bread that makes Grandma smile and reach for her blackberry preserves.

While the number of artisan bakeries is growing steadily throughout the West, in New Mexico the trend has taken a different twist. Led by Willem Malten of Santa Fe's Cloud Cliff Bakery & Café, several of these bakeries in the state have become involved with partnerships that have reintroduced traditional wheat-farming to northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Called the Northern New Mexico Organic Wheat Project, it started less than a decade ago and has brought new vitality to farmlands where grain hadn't been grown for a generation.

Rediscovering local grains

A Dutch anthropology student who came to Santa Fe in 1983 after learning to bake at California's Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Malten pioneered artisan baking in New Mexico. Converting an out-of-the-way warehouse into his Cloud Cliff bakery, he created a lively community gathering place and art gallery that's developed into something of a local landmark. Malten started out by baking the European breads he was familiar with and selling them at his store and the Santa Fe Area Farmers' Market.

"I began to wonder: why am I not using locally grown grain?" Malten remembers. In the early '90s, he began researching ways to continue his craft using regional products. He discovered that, before World War II, northern New Mexico was a major wheat-growing area, producing more varieties than any other state. Malten immediately wrote a letter to the Farm Connection, a local farmers' newsletter, asking who might be interested in growing grain again.

From this impetus came the Wheat Project, a small farmers' cooperative that started organically growing a hard red winter wheat and a pale spring wheat. Rich in protein and gluten, flours made from these are ideal for hearty breads like Malten's.

Reintroducing these wheat crops turned out to be a good move for farmers too.

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