The Secrets Behind New Zealand's Best Bread
Aotearoa’s passionate organic and biodynamic grain farmers and specialty flour millers are ushering in a new era of nutrient-dense bread
My bread obsession came with my relocation to Central Otago from Auckland, where the local bakeries’ quality leavened loaves were taken very much for granted.
A loaf is only 10 minutes away at the supermarket, but I need to add 35 minutes to that to buy anything with the taste, texture and nutritional qualities of the bread I (and my gut) enjoy eating, so I’m learning to make it myself.
The trials and tribulations are many, but I struggle most with flour. I want to ensure the quality of my flour which comes with scary stories of highly processed, bleached, nutrition-less products.
Bleached flour is not permitted for use in New Zealand. Most of the product available from the supermarket uses New Zealand-grown grain, but organic New Zealand-grown flour is harder to source. Then there is the stoneground thing (thought to be more nutritionally sound because it contains germ and bran), and the farming of the grain, which can compromise nutritional qualities from day one.
Avid bread maker Jennifer Yee Collinson wrote an informative article for local food publication Stone Soup on New Zealand’s grain industry that answers many questions and, as a dietitian, says she is particularly interested in the nutritional values of single origin flours from New Zealand farmers.
“I am only just wrapping my head around some of the science behind long, slow, cold fermentation and what this does to wheat proteins, in particular gluten. Anecdotally, people with a wheat or gluten intolerance find that slowly fermented sourdough breads can be eaten without the same effects of loaves made with more refined flours, which do not undergo the same process.
“It’s understood that this slow fermentation of up to 48 hours allows lactobacillus to modify and breakdown the indigestible amino acids proline and glutamine in the gluten,” she says.
Jennifer stresses that sourdough is not gluten-free and those with intolerances should check with health professionals before trialling.
She has discovered that, “A growing number of chefs and bakers are looking for a closer connection to farmers who care about grains and provenance and sustainable growing practices that maintain the soil for future generations. Some bakers have taken this one step further by choosing to mill their own flour, to ensure freshness and nutritive value.
“The onus is on losing less of the bran and germ which results in a flour of higher nutritional quality, flavour and a deeper colour in the resulting bread. In modern, larger roller-milling operations, these outer bran layers of the grain and the nutrient-dense germ are removed and separated to become products of their own.”
What do our bakers think? Bread & Butter’s Isabel Pasch, a scientist who studied microbiology (particularly fermentation in the gut), got into the business of baking bread so she could help people access “real bread” and understand how much better it is for us.
Isabel uses only organic flour and explains that they have to mix Australian flour with New Zealand-grown flour because of our limited milling infrastructure.
“We basically have two commercial mills and because they mill conventional flour that has come into contact with pesticides and chemicals, they cannot mill organic grains without their being affected.” Bread & Butter’s flour is milled by Chantal Organics in Napier.
The grains’ nutritional qualities are of utmost importance to Maya Handley, who started the rather unique rye and wholewheat sourdough subscription service, Kopiko, in 2019.
“Along with flavour and texture, our focus is on health,” she says. “I wanted to bake nutrient-dense wholegrain bread that I was struggling to find for myself — healthy loaves for everyday life.”
Maya trained as an artisan bread-maker in New York — where home bread deliveries are the norm. People are slowly coming round to it here and she credits the Covid lockdown, during which she was able to continue baking as an essential service, for helping to change people’s perception of the food supply chain and being able to get nutritious food regularly.
Maya uses a combination of flours from Milmore Downs, a biodynamic, certified organic farm north of Canterbury, and New Zealand Biograins, who mill New Zealand-grown spray-free grain from various Canterbury farms. She says that in terms of the nutritional qualities of bread there are two components — the grain itself and how the dough is fermented.
Milmore Downs have a Zentrofan mill (which combines a stone with a high-speed fan that doesn’t overheat the flour as it is milled) to mill their rye and wheat into a light wholegrain flour that still contains the vitamins and minerals from the germ.
The germ also contains the fat that makes flour go rancid and reduces shelf life, which is why it is milled out of flours produced commercially.
Kopiko rely on weekly deliveries of freshly milled flour and Maya says the supply of New Zealand-grown organic flour is limited so it is difficult to create bread on a large scale.
Wholegrain Organics has been milling flour for more than 20 years so, as owner Robert Hall says, there is a bit of history there.
“We started milling for ourselves and our little bakery. People used to come to our trailer at the markets with doctors’ certificates saying, ‘I can’t eat this, I can’t do that, what can I do?’ At some stage we noticed a change and people became more preventative, they were becoming aware of how important what we eat is for our health. We were always advocating the good health of wholegrain bread and flour, and this stirred our growth.”
Today Wholegrain Organics is a non-profit, charitable organisation that has more than 400 12- to 19-year-old students from nine schools learning to cook, bake and farm in their New Plymouth facility that includes a bakery, cafe, kitchen and vegetable farms.
The flour milling happens onsite and Robert has always used a Zentrofan mill because it allows them to mill the whole grain and that’s what they specialise in. They only bake 100 per cent wholegrain bread and have recently started sprouting grain.
“We sprout the grain before drying and milling and it adds even more nutrition and a nice sweetness to the bread. Our sprouted grain bread is the purest of the pure and is hugely digestible because of all the enzymes at work. It’s a bit extreme for some, so we also produce a range of sourdough breads that have the benefit of sprouted grains and sprouted grain flour. I think this is something unique to us.”
Robert supports local farmers. “Some of our grain comes from Canterbury and we have partnered with a local farmer here in Bulls who is growing organic grains for us. He was growing grain for livestock. He loves the land and the community and now he can combine those things by growing quality grain for our flour. You’ve got to love that.”
Robert believes in partnering with farmers to support them to grow more grain and working hand-in-hand with the farmers is an aspect he enjoys. “You have to have some resilience here in New Zealand for our basic food products. Lockdown proved that we should be supporting local.”
Getting back to my bread-making journey, I now understand why the selection of organic, wholegrain, New Zealand-grown flours in the supermarket is limited and why I have to travel further for my supplies and bread that I enjoy eating. (Robert points out wholegrain is not to be confused with wholemeal, which is “white flour that has had stuff added back into it”.)
But for the health of my family and our environment I am willing to pay more for the right product when I find it and will continue making bread, knowing that, where I can, I am supporting New Zealand’s organic and biodynamic grain farmers and specialty flour millers.
And that as demand increases and more of our grain goes to feed people rather than livestock, so will availability.
Where to find flour
• Wholefoods stores have an extensive range of quality flours that are usually well labelled. They will happily talk you through their attributes if not.
• Milmore Downs’ organic Zentrofan and stoneground flours are available online at Milmoredowns.co.nz. Organic whole grains and cereals are also available.
• New Zealand Biograins’ flour, grains and pulses are available at Biograins.co.nz.
• For those looking for lighter flour options, Shelly Bay Baker sell their New Zealand stoneground white, wholemeal and rye flour online under the Capital Millers brand at Capitalmillers.co.nz.
• All Chantal Organics and Ceres Organics flours are certified organic but do not use New Zealand-grown wheat. They are available from various supermarkets and wholefood stores.
Good loaves to buy
• All Bread & Butter breads are made with certified organic ingredients and are available from their Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Whangaparaoa stores, and at various wholefoods stores. For the home baker, owner Isabel Pasch holds bread classes for 10 people every quarter in the bakery.
• Wholegrain Organics are at The Square in Palmerston North. Their sprouted grain breads are available in Auckland at Naturally Organic, Commonsense Organics and Huckleberry Farms. Any of these stores will order in their Zentrofan wholegrain flours for you or buy online at Sprouted.co.nz. Any profit made from the sale of Wholegrain Organics’ product is used to sponsor the Hands-On Food educational programme. Read more at Wholegrainorganics.co.nz.
• Order Kopiko seeded rye sourdough and whole-wheat sandwich sourdough for one-off, weekly or fortnightly delivery (currently West and Central Auckland only) at Kopiko.nz. Maya sells these and other loaves at The Shed Collective’s Saturday market in Oratia and the Titirangi market on the last Sunday of every month. A retail bakery is on the horizon.
• Wild Wheat have been raising Auckland’s bread game for 22 years and owner Andrew Fearnside still works in the bakery. He is aware that the nutritional side of breads have become more important to people and his extensive range of slow-fermented sourdoughs are nutritious and easier to digest. Look out for the monthly special that frequently tops the nutrition scale. May’s besan flour, chia seed and turmeric has just given way to June’s golden linseed and sorghum. Visit Wildwheat.co.nz for where to purchase.