Relegated to the status of "healthy" toast option at the local greasy spoon, or — worse yet — weird pasta dishes that "real" Italians snub their noses at, whole wheat has long been an awkward stepchild of the health food movement: a boon for school cafeterias and diabetics, perhaps, but for finicky gourmands? Whole wheat just didn't seem to have a place.
Here's what Bob Klein, the owner of Oakland's Oliveto Restaurant (5655 College Ave.), wants you to know: Most of what's marketed as "whole wheat" isn't really whole wheat at all. And once you've eaten, say, pizza or pasta made from the real stuff, it'll put to rest the notion that you need any other reason beyond sheer deliciousness to make whole wheat a regular part of your diet.
For the past five years, the company Klein founded, Community Grains, has been on a mission to rehabilitate the image of whole wheat — along with various other whole grains — from the perspective of both health and taste.
Klein said that his interest in whole grains started out as nothing more than curiosity — a sense that despite everything else that the locavore food movement had taught him, he still knew surprisingly little about one of our most basic staples: wheat. He didn't know how wheat grew or how it was processed; he didn't know what different varieties there were.
And so Community Grains was started as a facilitator for an ongoing dialogue between farmers, millers, bakers, and chefs. It has also functioned as an extended research project, complete with a "science committee" — Michael Pollan is a member.
Among Klein's discoveries along the way: The stuff that's labeled "whole wheat" at the supermarket usually isn't whole wheat at all. The process by which flour is made, industrially, consists of "roller milling" wheat in order to strip off the bran and the germ, leaving behind the endosperm — the white stuff, which has little nutritional value. For most commercial "whole-wheat" flours, the flour is reconstituted after this milling process, with the bran and the germ added back in — but often not all of it and, because it was stripped off to begin with, in a much less nutritious form.
By contrast, Klein stressed that Community Grains only sells true whole-grain products: flours and polentas and so forth wherein the entire seed is stone ground.
"Nothing is added; nothing is removed," Klein said. "That's whole grain, in our definition."
Because so many other supposed whole-grain products don't operate under the same standards, Klein said he's also pushing for increased transparency when it comes to labeling. All of Community Grains' products are labeled with a clear and specific definition of "whole grain." And the company is about to launch its first "identity preserved wheat" product — a fusilli that will include on its label a wealth of information about the wheat: who developed the particular variety, the farm where it was grown, when exactly it was harvest and milled, and so forth.
"We think this is basic information that should be available. It's all relevant; none of it is for show," Klein said.
According to Klein, biochemists have only begun to understand the nutritional benefits of true whole grains. But, as a restaurateur, he believes the taste benefits are indisputable. After all, he says, the germ of the wheat is where the fat is, and the fat is where much of the flavor comes from.
One local restaurant that's embraced Community Grains' line of whole-grain products is Chop Bar (247 4th St., Oakland), where you'll find an assortment of whole-grain muffins, scones, and other baked goods. Chef and co-owner Lev Delaney's favorites include a "spectacular" rosemary shortbread cookie and a cornbread (made from a mix of whole-grain cornmeal and red winter wheat flour) that he serves during the restaurant's monthly summer pig roasts.
"[The whole-grain items] help us create a unique identity with the stuff that we bake," Delaney said.
Meanwhile, at Oliveto, Chef Jonah Rhodehamel said he isn't ready to scrap traditional white-flour pastas altogether, but he has found several applications where he prefers using whole-grain flour, strictly from a flavor standpoint. In particular, he cited his penne bolognese, which uses fresh penne made from red winter wheat flour. According to Rhodehamel, the earthy, nutty flavor of that particular wheat varietal is hearty enough to stand up to a full-flavored sauce like the bolognese; traditional white-flour pasta just gets overwhelmed.
"[The whole wheat] gives the pasta so much more depth and makes it a component in the dish instead of just being a canvas," he explained.
The bolognese wasn't on the menu during a recent lunch visit to Oliveto's downstairs cafe, so I ordered the penne pomodoro instead — a wonderful rendition of a classic. The texture of the pasta was perfect, and, as promised, there was a nuttiness and slight sweetness to it that stood up to the tangy, spicy tomato sauce.
As Rhodehamel had said, the pasta wasn't just a blank canvas. It had a taste and texture that were interesting — and delicious — in their own right.