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July 19, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Thousands of 'grainiacs' expected to flock to Skowhegan

Photo / Jody Winship
Photo / Jody Winship
Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, demonstrates how to bake pita bread.

Rising from its start in a church parking lot, Skowhegan's Kneading Conference, now in its eleventh year, is expected to attract 250 attendees, and the related Artisan Bread Fair more than 3,000 attendees coming from all over the country and Canada.

Both estimates are up from last year's numbers.

"People are coming from further away," Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, which organized the annual event, told Mainebiz. Some national attention also helped drive up interest in the conference, which he said is a model for others in the nation including in Washington, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Quebec.

Though he could not cite the economic impact of the conference, except to point to packed hotels and restaurants during the events, Noyes said being featured on the Boston TV show "Chronicle" brought more than 100 Massachusetts residents to The Bankery, the local bakery in Skowhegan, within a couple weeks of the show's being aired. And CNN recognized the Kneading Conference as one of its "Quirky 15" events.

Calling all bread buffs

The Kneading Conference runs from July 27-28, and requires a $325 prepayment and preregistration online here. Proceeds go to the nonprofit Maine Grain Alliance.

Farmers, bakers, chefs, researchers, maltsters, food entrepreneurs and anyone interested in bread, pastry and grains should attend, according to Noyes, who says all the disciplines are interrelated.

The two-day conference features more than 50 workshops. Topics include baking in a wood-fired oven from a cast iron tub, growing and "nixtamalizing" [processing] flint corn, baking in an earth oven, things that go with bread led by Allison Reid of Scratch Bakery in South Portland and techniques for beginning home bakers led by Stacy Cooper of Biscuits & Co. of Biddeford.

Also in attendance will be the Quebec Artisan Bread and Grain Connection. And Allagash Brewing and Maine Grains will hold a pilot brew workshop. Allagash already makes one beer that uses only Maine-grown grains called Sixteen Counties, and it recently committed to buy one million pounds per year of Maine-grown grains by 2021.

Keynotes will be given by Francis Percival, a London-based food and wine writer who will talk about food clusters, and Stephanie Swane, the publisher of Modernist Cuisine, who will discuss bread myths, technique hacks and equipment.

Fair to follow

The conference will be followed on Saturday, July 29, by the Artisan Bread Fair, a free festival celebrating bread, baked goods and many of the fruits of the Kneading Conference. It is at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Parking is $3.

Among the exhibitors are Abel & Schafer, Barred Owl Creamery, Borealis Breads, Casco Bay Butter Co., Fiore Olive Oils and Vinegars, Maine Grains, Northwoods Gourmet Girl, Sawyer's Maple Farm, Tempest in a Teapot and The Bankery.

Noyes, a sixth-generation farmer who with his brother owns a 10-acre organic vegetable and grain farm in Woodland, near Caribou, said grain is central to so the foods and drinks people enjoy.

"The Kneading Conference invites people from around the world to embrace what we do with grain and understand that it's not just the loaf you grab at the store or the beginning of their favorite brew. It's fundamental to supporting healthy communities and economies," he said.

He added that the conference helps "create a cluster of professionals to learn from one another and define where investments should be made and shepherd the Maine grain economy.

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