Why have the French always eaten baguettes, while Kentuckians preferred biscuits? The answer may have more to do with climate than culture.
Kentucky's wet winters are more conducive to growing the low-protein "soft" wheat used for soft breads, biscuits and cookies than high-protein "hard" wheat, which works best for crusty breads.
But Jim Betts, who owns Bluegrass Baking Co. on Clays Mill Road, has noticed a couple of trends in recent years: his customers are buying more crusty, chewy breads, and they want more of their food to be locally grown.
"We're trying to source as many locally produced products as we can," Betts said, adding that a couple of organic farmers in Central Kentucky have told him they want to grow new varieties of wheat if they can find a market for them.
So Betts began talking with experts at the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture to see if it might be possible to find varieties of high-protein wheat that would grow well here.
He also wanted to know if there would be noticeable differences in taste between organically grown Kentucky flour and the nearly one ton of North Dakota flour he buys each week from ConAgra Foods.
Betts worked with Mark Williams, a horticulture professor who teaches sustainable agriculture, and David Van Sanford, a wheat breeder in UK's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.
A year ago, they planted four varieties of wheat they thought might work, including one developed in North Carolina for wet Southern climates. One was grown at UK's Waveland research farm in south Lexington, the rest at the Spindletop research farm north of town.
"Of course, we chose the worst winter in 20 years," Betts said. "But we got some flour out of it."
That flour was given to Andy Brown, Bluegrass Baking's chief baker, who used it to make baguettes.
Last Tuesday, Betts brought Williams and Van Sanford together to do a blind taste test of the four baguettes, along with one of his store's regular baguettes and a "ringer" made from UK-produced soft wheat. They were joined by Bob Perry, a UK professor who teaches gastronomy and dietetics.
Betts and the UK professors sliced up each baguette so they could smell, taste and pick it apart. They evaluated each on the color of its crust and the aroma and texture of the "crumb" inside.
When wheat is mixed with yeast, water and salt to make bread, the fermentation releases gasses that form bubbles in the bread — and produce that wonderful smell. The higher the flour protein, the bigger the bubbles, the larger the loaf and the chewier the bread.
Betts likens this "gluten strength" to a balloon: "The stronger the balloon, the bigger it can get." The problem with low-protein flour is that it "cannot hold the tension you need to make a good, crunchy loaf."
The men agreed that some of the wheat varieties made better baguettes than others, but all were good. The "ringer" loaf wasn't as good as the others, but it wasn't bad.
Having demonstrated that high-protein wheat can be grown in Kentucky, Williams said the next challenge is to refine farming practices to maximize consistency, quality and yield.
Van Sanford said about 500,000 acres of wheat is now grown in the state, mostly in Western Kentucky, but almost all of it is low-protein varieties. Growing high-protein wheat for local consumption would require more than planting different seeds. Farmers would need storage and milling facilities — and customers.
Central Kentucky once had dozens of flour mills, which survive only in the names of the roads that led to them. Weisenberger Mill in Midway is the last one operating.
But here's the big question: Can high-protein wheat be grown economically enough for Kentucky farmers, millers and bakers to all make a profit at a bread price Kentucky consumers would be willing to pay?
Betts thinks so. He says many Bluegrass Baking Co. customers realize that fresh, local food tastes better, and the more they can keep their money in the local economy, the better it is for everyone.
Creating this new niche market for Kentucky farmers would be a challenge, but I give it better odds than convincing Frenchmen to eat biscuits.