Fresh from the mill
Master breadmaker speaks of his craft and in defense of gluten
These days, it’s uncommon to hear anyone speak positively, let alone reverently, about gluten, the oft-vilified mix of proteins found in wheat and related grains. That is, unless one stops by the Miller’s Bake House booth at the Saturday morning farmers’ market in downtown Chico and chats with the friendly owner, Dave Miller, a baker with 30 years of experience. He’ll speak in gluten’s defense.
“Gluten is a really unique substance that allows bread to rise and gives you the texture you get with pizza crust and pretzels and everything else,” he said. “I’m aware that some people have problems digesting gluten. But for everyone who doesn’t—and the vast majority of people have no problem eating wheat—it’s really nutritious, especially if you’re eating the whole grain. I just feel like people need to hear that.”
Granted, Miller’s opinion might be considered biased. His livelihood is based on bread, and it’s made entirely at the Saturday market, where each week he sells about 400 loaves of whole-grain sourdough bread made from wheat and rye. Great craftsmanship is practiced throughout the process, from purchasing the ingredients from local farmers to milling the grain, fermenting the dough for 15 hours and finally baking it in a wood-fired oven.
Miller has made a point of running a basic operation in recent years, especially compared with his hectic early days running Wunderbrot Bakery in Chico. He bought it in 1995 and the business expanded quickly—too quickly. “It got a bit out of control, to the point where I had to step back from baking and just be a manager,” he recalled. “I’m in it to be a baker. That didn’t sound right to me.”
And so, 18 years ago, Miller and his wife, Signey, bought an idyllic home in the Yankee Hill area north of Lake Oroville and converted the garage into a bakery. During a recent visit, the CN&R toured the nostalgia-invoking space, with its pink-and-white tile flooring, Austrian-crafted wooden mill, woven bread baskets and 70-year-old mixer. In the name of simplification—and working only 40 hours a week—Miller chose to cut distribution entirely. So, while devotees of Miller’s bread used to secure their loaves at Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods, they must now purchase them exclusively at the Saturday market. Miller likes it that way.
“I think it’s the ideal place to sell and buy food,” he said. “Everything’s transparent. Customers can ask me whatever they want about the bread, and any farmer, for that matter.”
However, some of those interactions became frustrating for Miller as the gluten-free fad peaked about two years ago and he was approached with every bread-related conspiracy imaginable. Customers were blaming wheat for all sorts of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
“The unfortunate thing is that most of it is, you know, total bullshit,” Miller said.
For instance, many people are under the impression that most wheat has been genetically modified, when GMO wheat is extremely rare compared with, say, GMO corn, soybeans or rice. And while there’s also been plenty of negative hype surrounding so-called hybrid wheats, Miller argues that there’s nothing inherently dangerous about crossing the genetic material of crops.
“When somebody comes up to my booth and says they don’t trust the new hybrid wheat [varieties], I give them a friendly challenge to find anything at the farmers’ market that isn’t a hybrid, that hasn’t been crossed many, many times by well-intentioned human beings to get the right size, shape, color and nutrition,” he said. “Every onion and apple has been crossed many times over, just like wheat. These crosses happen in nature, too. If you’re afraid of hybrid wheat, you should be afraid of everything you eat.”