SAVEUR - - Contents - A ded­i­cated miller and a few nos­tal­gic bak­ers are bring­ing one of the South’s Colo­nial breads back to life BY AM­BER GIB­SON

Heir­loom rice bread,


the bread in the Caroli­nas was made with rice. Slaves of some wealthy house­holds were sent to France to learn to cook, start­ing with James Hem­ings, one of Thomas Jef­fer­son’s slaves, who spent around five years train­ing in Paris. When the slaves re­turned home, they cooked and baked with the in­gre­di­ents they had at their fin­ger­tips, which meant they were of­ten mak­ing French­style sour­dough breads by cut­ting wheat with rice, the most im­por­tant and lu­cra­tive crop in the an­te­bel­lum Low­coun­try. The la­bor-in­ten­sive rice plan­ta­tions were built on the backs of slaves in the swamps and tidal es­tu­ar­ies of the Low­coun­try, so rice was plen­ti­ful and much cheaper than wheat.

Dur­ing the Civil War, Union block­ades of Con­fed­er­ate ports forced Low­coun­try cooks to rely even more heav­ily on the grain, sub­sti­tut­ing it for wheat, with the poor sub­sist­ing on mea­ger rice grid­dle cakes. Rice not only made for moist, bright white loaves and cakes, but it was also good for sooth­ing stom­achs in the days be­fore Alka-seltzer.

Few Amer­i­cans to­day have even heard of rice bread, much less tasted it. Mas­ter baker Li­onel Vatinet, owner of La Farm Bak­ery in Cary, North Carolina, hopes to change that. He learned about tra­di­tional rice bread from An­son Mills founder Glenn Roberts, who has made it his mis­sion to res­cue Carolina Gold rice—a del­i­cate­tast­ing long-grain strain that was a pil­lar of the an­te­bel­lum econ­omy—as well as heir­loom South­ern dent corns and wheats from the brink of ex­tinc­tion. Vatinet knew that the amount of rice he could use to make bread (to­day amount­ing to 5,000 grains in each loaf and 200 pounds ev­ery six weeks) could make a real dif­fer­ence in bring­ing the va­ri­etal back.

“I wanted to fea­ture the rice in a way that our cus­tomers would ac­tu­ally see it,” Vatinet says. “And I wanted to use as much of it as pos­si­ble so we could have a true im­pact on re­vi­tal­iz­ing this crop.” At La Farm, Vatinet bakes sour­dough boule us­ing rice mid­dlins, or bro­ken grains (also called rice grits), cook­ing the rice un­til it’s very ten­der, then adding the re­sult­ing cooled por­ridge to his tra­di­tional mix of whole wheat, white flour, and sour­dough starter. It fer­ments for three days, like most La Farm breads, be­fore proof­ing in a ban­neton bas­ket and get­ting sprin­kled with rice flour. The re­sult­ing loaf—made with 30 per­cent rice por­ridge—is in­cred­i­bly moist and has vis­i­ble grains in the in­te­rior and crusty ex­te­rior. It’s fill­ing but still light, and stays fresh longer than most all-wheat loaves. Cus­tomers watch bak­ers hoist loaves from wide peels into the steam-in­jec­tion hearth oven and pull out fresh, aro­matic breads through­out the day.

In South Carolina, Husk res­tau­rant sous chef Justin Cherry re­mem­bers fall­ing in love with Carolina Gold rice bak­ing after meet­ing Roberts while he was open­ing the res­tau­rant’s Charles­ton branch. When Cherry be­gan a Sun­day bread pro­gram at Husk in 2014, Carolina Gold rice bread was one of his first loaves. “The aroma it­self was po­tent with bay and am­ber,” he says. “It hit the deck of the wood-fired oven at about 515 de­grees, im­me­di­ately shoot­ing out small puffs of steam as I closed the door. I think at that mo­ment, I re­al­ized that this is what it’s all about. Three hun­dred years of his­tory is mounted up in this loaf.” Cherry now runs Half Crown Bake­house, a mo­bile 18th-cen­tury clay-oven bakeshop that spe­cial­izes in food­ways of the Colo­nial time pe­riod, in­clud­ing rice bread. An­son Mills now has cer­ti­fied-or­ganic Carolina Gold rice fields planted in six states. The mis­sion is spread­ing, like a plume of pow­dery flour.

From left: A French-style loaf made with Carolina rice; mas­ter baker Li­onel Vatinet at La Farm Bak­ery.

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