The (Tasty) Benefits of Heritage Grains

Does “great taste” come to mind when you think of heritage grains?

Many Americans consider heritage grains a health food—something they should eat, not something they want to eat. Fortunately, that appears to be on the cusp of change. Top chefs and bakers have been cooking with new heritage grain hybrids to thrilling results.

One of my favorite events of the year is Grain Gathering, an annual three-day event held every July at the Bread Lab (the event started in 2011). Expert bakers, millers, grain scientists, farmers, and industry representatives gather in the Skagit Valley. Their goal is to break the dominance of commodity wheat and to find a way to sell America on the benefits of heritage grains. Flavor is the number one selling point. Nutrition is another along with environmental sustainability. Virtually every community in America used to grow wheat. More robust heritage wheat hybrids could again make this economically feasible, benefitting local economies.

At a Grain Gathering a few years ago, I was introduced to two hybrids developed by Bread Lab. One is called Skagit Magic, which is grown in the Skagit Valley and milled at nearby Cairn Springs Mill. The other is called Expresso Wheat (or, in the lab, T-85). It is grown in Walla Walla and also milled at Cairn Springs Mill. When I started Macrina, flours like these just weren’t available.

For Macrina’s twenty-fifth anniversary this year, I developed two new breads that utilized these new organic flours. I spent many hours playing around with various techniques and found the heritage flours work best with a slow fermentation. This helps develop subtle, bright flavors and hydrates the bran. I made our Skagit Sourdough with the Skagit Magic. This is one of our most grain-forward and flavorful loaves. The Whole Grain Baguette is our other new loaf, which we make with the Expr results. At Macrina, our two latest breads feature heritage wheats—the primary reason being the astonishing flavor they add. Edouardo Jordan, the star chef and creator of JuneBaby, named America’s best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, opened Lucinda Grain Bar, a concept focused on ancient grains. “As Americans, we eat some of the most flavorless, unhealthy grain-based products in the world,” Jordan said. “Commercialization has stripped down all the nutritional value in our grain product. We are excited to explore the flavor and potential of ancient grains.” Jordan noted that some of the best grains in the world are grown in the Skagit Valley.

The Bread Lab, located in the Skagit Valley, deserves no small amount of credit for this. Part science lab, part high-end bakery, this extension of Washington State University occupies a 12,000 square feet space in Mount Vernon that includes a research and baking kitchen, a cytology lab, the King Arthur Flour Baking School, a milling laboratory and a professional kitchen. The director of the Bread Lab, Dr. Stephen Jones, is currently one of the most influential voices in the food world. Jones is determined to bring diversity to the range of flours widely available. Currently, the bland, chalky white flour born of industrial agriculture is found in almost all the bread sold in America. You won’t find much else at your local supermarket either. By breeding heritage grains that have both taste and nutritional benefits, but that also have the robustness that farmers need to produce high yield crops, Jones hopes to make regional grain farming viable again.

The standard flour available at grocery stores today comes from wheat that has been bred to be optimal for a fast-food hamburger bun. A hundred years ago that wasn’t the case. Diverse wheats grew and were milled in communities across America. Between 1890 and 1930 America went from over 22,000 flour mills to less than 200. The State of Washington had 160. Now there are two. The widespread use of new roller mills that could efficiently strip the grain of both the bran and the germ creating a flour that had an almost indefinite shelf life ushered in this change. This coincided with the rise of the industrial production of food. We got sliced bread in plastic bags and the phrase, “The greatest thing since sliced bread.” However, we lost a wide range of regional flours milled from an incredible range of wheats, many of which had much better flavor than what worked best for industrial bakeries. Not to mention nutrition. Jones writes, “By using only the white portion of the seed, wheat is reduced from a nutrient-dense food to one that lacks basic nutrition.”

When I started Macrina in 1993, it was thrilling to be part of the artisan bread movement that brought French and Italian-style breads to many cities in America. I’m even more excited about the heritage grain movement—so much so that I’m growing heritage wheat on my Vashon Island farm this year!  Seeing grain scientists, farmers and bakers unite around the idea of building a better tasting and healthier bread may just be the greatest thing since sliced bread.


The Ruby Brink: A Dream Destination on Vashon Island 

This island-to-table restaurant is a rare gem that doesn’t unduly abuse the wallet. “We didn’t want to price out the farmers who supply us,” says chef Rustle Biehn. 

Every so often you stumble into a waking dream. The Ruby Brink, an eatery that opened this spring on Vashon Island, is the sort of place that inspires such astonishment. It’s an island-to-table experience, equal parts public house, restaurant, whole-animal butcher shop, and farm kitchen.

Vashon is sometimes described as an island surrounded by reality, both positively and negatively. Still, one thing that is beyond contention is its concentration of independent, organic farms and its pastoral beauty. Led by an ensemble cast, The Ruby Brink was born of a dream to create a gathering place that offered the best of Vashon: comfort, beauty, a kind of timelessness, and the delicious best each season has to give. The unique blend has led to The Ruby Brink becoming an epicurean hub in Vashon’s eclectic community.

Located in the historic Vashon Landing building on the central corner in the town of Vashon, The Ruby Brink’s spacious interior underwent a lengthy remodel as the owners tailored the interior to their vision. The space is comfortable and elegant in a way that feels suitable for an anniversary dinner or a beer and sandwich after a day on the farm. The classic J-shaped bar is an invitation to sidle up and start a conversation. Comfortable booths and an array of variously-sized tables accommodate couples and large groups.

The owners are butcher Lauren Garaventa, chef Rustle Biehn, and bartender Jake Heil. Lauren’s background includes stints at Vashon’s Sea Breeze Farms, one of the local pioneers of sustainably-focused, grass-pastured meat and later at the farm-to-table Rain Shadow Meats in Pioneer Square. She and Rustle were the duo behind Meat & Noodle Soup Club, the celebrated pop-up. Jake moved to the island from Portland where he co-opened and managed the Multnomah Whiskey Library, called one of the 15 best whiskey bars in the world. Of his experience working at one of the most exclusive places in the Northwest, Jake says, “The legacy of that for me is less about whiskey, and more about hospitality. Here I’ve curated a back bar that is less exclusive, more local, but, I think, just as intriguing. Each bottle has a story.”

The Ruby Brink exudes a kind of relaxed island hospitality, refined and timely, without any big-city pretension. This carries over to the food. “Nothing about this says fine-dining except for the amount of attention that gets paid to the ingredients,” Lauren says. “That’s the number one thing we have in common with any of the fine-dining restaurants in Seattle: we’re able to curate our ingredients to a really high standard.”

Not surprising, given The Ruby Brink’s focus on sustainability, local meat and produce, and simple, clear, lovely flavors. It’s healthy food that is so tasty it leaves you craving more. Jake says, “We wanted to make it as accessible as possible, a place for neighbors and people visiting the island to enjoy each other, the space, have drinks, a snack or a meal.”

The butcher shop, located in one corner of the ample space, offers a variety of cuts and meats as well as one of the best-tasting bone broths you’ll find anywhere. “We’re a one-cow-a-month restaurant,” Lauren says. “Figuring out how to divide up the meat between retail and the restaurant is a puzzle. At the end of the month, every bit of the cow is used, eaten, with nothing left.”

This kind of approach requires a lot of planning. Lauren and Rustle confer each afternoon, and a new menu is printed every day. You may not find the same thing on the menu from one visit to the next. What you will find is balanced, flavorful food served in beautifully composed plates. You’ll always find a Meat & Noodle bowl, but the meat and vegetables will vary. And you’ll always find a sausage served on a Macrina Challah Roll, but the type of sausage will change. Both carnivores and vegetarians are sure to find something to love on the list of starters, sandwiches, salads, rice dishes, and entrees like roasted half-chicken or whole pork chops. “We want you to feel like someone cared deeply about the ingredients and prepared them with love,” Jake says. “That feeling passes through everything we do, whether it’s drinks, food, or service.”

Leslie Mackie, Macrina’s founder, and a Vashon resident, says, “The Ruby Brink quickly became a beloved island hang out and gathering spot. The menu showcases what they are getting from local farmers and what Lauren is working on in her butcher shop. The food is always delicious and inspiring. Macrina is very proud to provide The Ruby Brink with bread and flatbreads.”


February Recipe of the Month: Chocolate Almond Caramel Tartlet

This classic Parisian dessert is both showy and delicious. The addition of ground almonds gives the buttery crust a richness and wonderfully crumbly texture. It is blissfully delicious and makes an elegant base for the chocolate custard. The caramel topping adds a layer of decadence that might seem a step too far, but because the brandied chocolate pudding is bittersweet, it brings the tart’s three elements into balance. Topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream and cocoa powder, this stunner will bring you back to that lovely patisserie by the Seine.

Makes Eight 3-inch tartlets

Sweet Almond Dough

½ cup whole almonds

1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

⅓ cup granulated sugar

8 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick)

½ tsp pure vanilla extract

½ tsp almond extract

Chocolate Custard and Caramel Topping

2 cups heavy cream, divided

¾ cup bittersweet chocolate chips

5 egg yolks

1 cup + 3 Tbsp sugar, divided

1 Tbsp brandy

½ cup water

Optional Garnish

reserved chopped almonds

cocoa powder

whipped cream



Preheat oven to 350°F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place almonds on the prepared baking sheet and roast for 15 to 18 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Finely chop in a food processor and set aside.

In a medium bowl, add ⅓ cup of the chopped almonds, flour and sugar. Mix thoroughly. Reserve any remaining chopped almonds for garnishing.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Turn off heat and cool for 5 minutes, then add vanilla and almond extracts.

Make a well in the center of the our bowl. Begin adding the melted butter and mix with a spoon until thoroughly combined. Measure 3 Tbsp of the almond dough and press into a 3-inch tartlet shell so that the base and sides are an even thickness. Repeat for each tartlet. Chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Line each chilled tartlet shell with parchment and fill with pie weights (beans or rice also work). Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove parchment and pie weights. Let cool.


To make the chocolate custard, scald 1½ cups heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the bittersweet chocolate chips to a blender or food processor. Pour the hot cream over the chips and blend until melted.

Combine the egg yolks, 3 Tbsp sugar and brandy in a small bowl. Add to the chocolate mixture in the blender and mix for 3 to 4 minutes.

Fill the baked shells with chocolate mixture nearly to the top, stopping a scant ⅛ inch from the rim of the baked shells—the extra crust will act as a border for the caramel sauce topping.

To make the caramel sauce, add the water and the remaining 1 cup of sugar to a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, dissolve the sugar and cook until the mixture turns golden brown. Run a wet pastry brush around the edges of the pan to prevent any sugar crystals from forming. When medium brown, turn off the heat and slowly add the remaining ½ cup of cream to the mixture. Be careful—this will create lots of steam. Whisk vigorously to combine. Transfer to another bowl. Let the caramel cool for 15 minutes.

Ladle caramel over each tartlet so that they are evenly covered. Garnish with the remaining chopped almonds. Chill the tartlets until cool.

Lightly sweetened whipped cream makes a delicious topping and a sprinkle of cocoa powder makes a handsome garnish.

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