Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Featured in the Pop-Up Pantry: Anson Mills Grains

We are so pleased to be able to offer our customers exquisite milled-to-order polenta and grits from Anson Mills in South Carolina. Here's a little bit about Anson Mills and its founder, Glenn Roberts:

In 1998 Glenn Roberts, a Charleston-based historic restoration consultant and thirty-year veteran of restaurant and hotel concept design, steered his career down a radical path. He sold his worldly possessions and rented a big metal warehouse behind a car wash in Columbia, South Carolina. He bought 4 native granite mills and 40 chest freezers.

Glenn's plan was ambitious, some might say mad: he intended to grow, harvest and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically, and re-create ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War. Grits, cornmeal, Carolina Gold rice, graham and biscuit flour, milled fresh for the table daily, had helped create a celebrated regional cuisine--America's first cuisine, the Carolina Rice Kitchen.

The cuisine was gone, the ingredients that inspired it no longer available. You might ask why anyone cared.

Glenn cared for a lot of reasons. He cared because the dishes his mother described during her girlhood in Aiken, South Carolina could no longer be prepared. He cared because each time he was asked to create a period dinner for an historic project the ingredients weren't around. He cared because local growers lacked the experience to grow old varieties. He cared because he knew this food had been exceptional.

It began with grits. In 1995 Glenn explored rural back roads looking for the famous white Carolina mill corn noted in antebellum plantation inventories and recipes. The corn was revered for its high mineral and floral characteristics, and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger's field near Dillon, South Carolina in 1997, and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998. Known as "Carolina Gourdseed White," the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600's. Gourdseed is a classic Southern dent corn, soft and easy to mill.

The discovery of Carolina Gourdseed White--and other nearly extinct varieties of Southern mill corn--fueled Glenn's efforts to preserve nutrition and flavor in heirloom corn. He knew the corn would have to be milled as carefully as it was grown. Glenn returned to historic documents. He read about an heirloom that had been bred to blow down in late fall for hand harvest under snow in deep winter. The corn, an 1850 yellow dent of Appalachian provenance called "John Haulk," was known to have made the "finest corn bread and mush." The fact that it was milled in freezing temperatures after full field ripening and drying was puzzling until Glenn froze and milled his own Gourdseed White. The resulting flavors were stunning. With this experiment Glenn "rediscovered" cold milling. In so doing, he found a way to offset the heat damage grains experience during milling, as well as ideal storage for seed corn-the freezer.

By 2000 Glenn had ten varieties of Southern dent heirlooms in the ground and was milling grits for chefs in Georgia and the Carolinas. Word got around. A handful of ingredient-conscious chefs across the country--Thomas Keller in Calfornia, Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Tom Colicchio in Manhattan, Ann Cashon in Washington DC, and Jodi Adams in Boston--began to use Anson Mills products and promote them vigorously to their colleagues. The circle widened.

In 2001, sustained by the success of Anson Mills' early efforts, Glenn took on production of certified organic Carolina Gold rice and a "Thirteen Colony" wheat called Red May. Both are currently in full production. In addition to its collection of native heirloom grains Anson Mills grows Japanese buckwheat, French oats and Italian farro. Each produces products of exquisite flavor and texture.

To date Anson Mills has provided grants to resuscitate roughly a dozen types of threatened antebellum mill corn, and has offered its research growers heirloom seed, seed selection expertise and management advice. Glenn works with thirty organic growers in six states.

Finding growers who are prepared to withstand the rigor of organic certification, and to make peace with the lower yields and higher demands of heirloom grains is no easy task. Glenn is indebted to the integrity of the seeds and the fortitude of his growers. He knows there is much left to do.

There are dozens of incredible recipe ideas for Anson Mills grains on their website.

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