The rise of New Mexico's artisan bakeries is bringing back a farming tradition
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.
"Organic wheat is more profitable," says Gonzalo Gallegos, a farmer from Costilla, New Mexico, and the president of the Wheat Project. While non-organic wheat brings in $2.25 to $2.50 a bushel, organic fetches between $6.50 and $7 a bushel. But Gallegos discovered the benefits went far beyond simple economics. "We're reviving our fallow lands where nothing grew for decades," Gallegos says. "That helps people in the community. And the bread that comes from our wheat is something that's good. You know what you're eating."
Longtime wheat grower Tom Seibel of Anton Chico, New Mexico, between Las Vegas and Santa Rosa on the Pecos River, sees another economic advantage in reviving wheat farming in New Mexico. "The Wheat Project gave us an alternative crop that works well on the land in combination with raising livestock," he says.
Using Wheat Project flour, Malten created his popular Nativo sprouted wheat bread, baking crunchy wheat berries into a hearty sourdough loaf. Cloud Cliff bakery uses 200,000 pounds of organic New Mexico-grown flour a year.
Other bakeries have followed Malten's lead, and artisan breads can now be found in a growing number of New Mexico bakeries and markets. Malten hopes this is the start of a revolution in the way New Mexicans eat. "Flour tortillas were invented out of wheat suitable for flatbread," says Malten. "If we now have local bread using locally grown wheat, we're on the way to developing authentic regional specialties in baking."
Sampling the bakers' art
Several New Mexico bakeries are using specially grown wheat; two of them also have cafes. Wheat Project production is still small and the bulk of it is used by Cloud Cliff and Taos Bakery.
Cloud Cliff Bakery & Café. The cafe is famous for its baskets of breakfast breads. That and a latte can guarantee a great morning. Bakery open 7-5 Mon-Fri, 8-3:30 Sat-Sun; cafe closes daily at 2:30. 1805 Second St.; (505) 983-6254.
Sage Bakehouse. Pick up a loaf, or try one of Sage's superb sandwiches, like Black Forest ham and Gruyère cheese on Italian country paisano bread. The cafe has a relaxed European style. Found in local restaurants, Sage Bakehouse breads include rustic sourdough, farm, paisano, calamata olive, and pecan raisin. Organic wheat from Gosar Ranch Natural Foods in Monte Vista, Colorado, is one variety used that lends the perfect flavor. Owner Andree Falls notes that bakers inject steam into the oven as loaves bake on the stone surface of a huge French hearth. This process produces a special crust for each type of bread, from chewy to caramelized. 7-5 Mon-Sat. 535 Cerrillos Rd., Ste. C; (505) 820-7243.
Taos Bakery. The homey aroma of just-baked bread greets you at this charming bakery cafe with handmade furniture and minimalist decor. Baker-owner Seth Klein apprenticed at his uncle's bakery in Telluride, Colorado, and in a Paris bakery where he used an ancient wood-fired oven. Using Wheat Project flour, he fashions hearty multigrain loaves, a crisp-crusted rustic white bread, and a dense walnut raisin, plus whimsical bread sculptures. For breakfast try the six-sliced French toast, an assortment of honey cinnamon raisin, roasted walnut raisin, and challah served with maple syrup. Lunchtime pizzas and calzones are superb, particularly the eggplant parmesan pizza. 7-3 Mon-Sat. 1223 Gusdorf Rd.; (505) 751-3734.
Great Harvest Bread Co. Although not an artisan bakery, Great Harvest is a commercial bakery that does mill its own non-organic Montana wheat daily in-house. You can taste samples of their two dozen varieties of bread as the loaves come out of the oven. The crusty French provincial sourdough, focaccia, walnut and gorgonzola, and savory sun-dried tomato with calamata olive breads are all low in fat. Bread is sold, but there's no cafe or food service. 7:30-7 Mon-Fri, 7:30-6 Sat, 8-5 Sun. 11200 Montgomery Blvd. N.E.; (505) 293-8277.