An Amagansett Wheat Field Provides for a Community of Chefs

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Sourdough bread at Carissa's Breads in East Hampton. Michael Heller photos

In 2009, Amanda Merrow and Katie Baldwin, having completed an agricultural apprenticeship at Quail Hill Farm, opened Amagansett’s Amber Waves Farm. The project, in its inception, included an empty field, 18 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, and a miniscule savings of $5,000. In the intervening near-decade, they have expanded their CSA monumentally, grown to a staggering eight acres (up from a single acre in 2009), opened up a brick-and-mortar market in Amagansett, and developed the culturally significant Amagansett Wheat Project. Celebrating their tenth operational season, Merrow and Baldwin are now among the most influential agricultural tastemakers on the East End.

Amber Waves Farm owners Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow in a wheat field at the farm.

Baldwin, a California native, studied international relations at the University of Southern California before moving to New York, where she took a position at the Council of Foreign Relations. “I wasn’t totally convinced that it was what I wanted my long-term game plan to be,” she said. “I knew that I loved food.” That love parlayed itself into an inevitable 12-month apprenticeship at Quail Hill, where she met Merrow, a Vermonter and Hamilton College alum who had grown up on a 100-acre “gentleman’s farm.”

Amber Waves Farm’s collaborative wheat project began with under an acre of wheat cultivation, but increased demand and a changing culinary demographic has expanded the need for local wheat; the women now helm an impressive 10-15 acres of wheat, showcasing heirloom varieties and adding more to the mix each year. “We didn’t know each other before the farming internship,” Baldwin said of her relationship with Merrow. “We imagined ourselves making a pizza farm. We thought: there’s not anyone growing small grains on the East End of Long Island — but someone did at some time, since there’s windmills everywhere.” (Note: years later, the women have finally made some truly great pizza.)

Amber Waves considers its wheat the “impetus for the farm,” but they now view the mission as larger: four pillars, as Baldwin said, which include equal attention paid to mixed vegetables, grain, livestock, and cover crop. The project began with a little help from former Wall Street magnate John de Cuevas, who had decamped for Amagansett in 1968, where he began the now-famous Amagansett sourdough starter — a “mother” still used today by local bakers. Mr. de Cuevas also spearheaded the Baker Foundation, designed to assist those in the field. “We asked for a $25,000 grant to start the Amagansett Wheat Project, with the goal of making a local loaf of bread,” Ms. Baldwin said. “John believed in the project.” And he was right to believe. That same year, Baldwin and Merrow met Carissa Waecther, a former New York City pastry chef. That relationship, well tended as a sourdough starter, has yielded loaves upon loaves of, yes, local bread.

“Their first year farming, I took a summer project out here. At the time, I was still a pastry chef in the city. I realized that they were growing wheat and I was really interested. I started milling it and making bread with it. My first account was their CSA,” Carissa Waecther, baker and owner of the cultish and singularly divine Carissa’s Breads, said. Baking with Merrow’s and Baldwin’s wheat has required a learning curve.

“It’s tougher to work with, and it’s different every growth period. Every harvest is a new beast, in particular with water and whatever yeast that we add. When it’s kind of fresher out of the ground, it needs less water. There’s a lot of natural yeast in the local wheat. It’s really bountiful, because it’s not stripped of anything,” Waechter added. Amber Waves’ wheat, unlike a shelf-stable, bleached, homogeneous product one might find at the grocery store, is, in and of itself, variable. Working with it competently requires skill and practice and a little patience. It’s a living product, reflecting the environment in which it is raised. It will keep a baker on her toes, but recipes, after all, were born for adaptation.

Carissa Waechter inside her East Hampton bakery.

Once Amber Waves’ product became available, other local chefs were happy to jump on board. Chef Jason Weiner of Bridgehampton’s Almond has experimented with the farm’s wheatberries, and Chef Carolyn Stec of East Hampton’s Mill House Inn began her relationship with the flour milled from this wheat a couple of years ago. “We changed our pancake recipe to be Amber Waves’ soft red whole wheat,” she said. “At that point, it was a combination of whole wheat and white flour. Now our pancakes are fully Amber Waves wheat. What we found is the biggest difference is that you have to add more moisture in what you’re baking than with other flours. When you’re working with real food, you have to be willing to adapt. You’ve got to know the texture you’re looking for and the body and what your dough is supposed to look like.”

In fact, Chef Stec has experimented with Amber Waves’ wheat in multiple recipes. For a special event she hosted, she made donuts and donut holes. She has also used the wheat to make ice cream cones (filled with Sag Harbor’s Joe & Liza’s ice cream, naturally) and dog biscuits, distributed to furry visitors to the pet-friendly property. Concerning her pancakes, a fluffier, more toothsome version of Bisquick, feedback has been good. “People have been really excited about it,” she said; the spirit of kitchen adaptation, as embraced by Chef Stec, has produced a reliably delicious stack of near-addictive pancakes.

The wheat field at Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett.

Amber Waves Farm collaborates in the Amagansett Wheat Project with Bridgehampton’s Mecox Bay Dairy, as well as with Amagansett’s Quail Hill Farm. Notably, Pete Ludlow, of Mecox, grows wheat by undersowing other crops that he can feed for his cattle, a symbiotic relationship between grain grower and dairy farmer. In 2015, the Project conducted a field trial of sorghum, a naturally gluten-free variety that currently enjoys a cult following. In 2016, Merrow and Baldwin expanded their repertoire further, including barley, buckwheat, hulless oats, rye, millet, amaranth, popcorn, rice, quinoa, sesame seeds, and flax. “We have trialed many grains on a really small scale,” Baldwin said. “The star of the bunch was sorghum. We do have sorghum planted this year. It kind of comes down to purchasing specialty equipment to process it. We could expand the local grain varieties with the purchase of some equipment would be critical for us.”

For right now, Amber Waves is not looking to expand, or, at least, not in the traditional sense. “We started with a really small wheat crop — maybe a third of an acre, and then expanded to 10 acres. We’re swinging it back to a smaller scale. There’s a sweet spot,” Baldwin said. “Cumulatively, if we can achieve 10 to 15 acres of wheat for all of us, we’re in a good spot. The difficulty that we’re finding is storageability. As farmers, we’ve dialed in — growing it is going really well, and harvesting it is going really well. We’re looking to take that next step in terms of storage and processing.” The farm, following years of experimentation, has come to rely on varieties that thrive on Eastern Long Island, like soft white winter wheat and hard red wheat (which is traditionally used for bread flour). Still, Baldwin said that she and Merrow hope to expand the concept of their farm to include a collaboration with a miller. She defined the farming relationship as a “triangle,” with the miller the “artist of how to treat the wheat post-harvest.” “As a farmer,” she said, “I’m really interested in the next step of the miller and how that changes things.”

In the meantime, Amber Waves uses a tabletop mill called the KoMo Fidibus Classic to mill their wheat berries. The mill grinds the berries with four-inch milling stones, and the process is gentle enough (and the temperature low enough) that the natural flavors and integrity of the grains are not impacted by the milling process. Flour is milled on-demand, ensuring the freshest, least compromised product available; many amateur bakers do not know that flour has a natural shelf-life, and can easily go rancid if kept for too long. (Chef Stec keeps her flour in sealed containers within a temperature-controlled “cold room,” equipped with a dehumidifier in order to prevent the onset of rancidity, and Waechter, who buys wheatberries and mills the wheat herself, suggests the freezer in the event that you can’t use the product right away.)

What does the next decade hold for Amber Waves Farm? It may be too soon to tell. At some point, Merrow and Baldwin may consider purchasing land on the North Fork, should the demand require it (wheat has increased in demand in New York State, just from a brewing perspective alone). At their market in Amagansett, Merrow and Baldwin sell a daily winter wheat oatmeal. “I guess our hope would be to dial the food component in enough to say: Yeah, we can serve our own winter wheatberry oatmeal out of our market year-round. If we were to take Amber Waves Farm and make, for instance, Amber Waves West, I would want to take this component of the farming with the model, because I think it’s important,” Baldwin said.

The farm also considers education of paramount importance. Since the start, the farm has trained 25 farmers, all of whom are still farming, and many of whom choose to stay in the northeast to feed their communities. This vocational education is, in essence, an evolution. Amber Waves is teaching a return to the land. “I think it’s amazing that it continues to evolve,” Waechter said of the farm. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing.”


MILL YOUR OWN

Amber Waves Farm sells both wheatberries and freshly milled flours. For those looking for the most authentic product, the wheatberries are a sure thing — all you have to do is learn how to mill them. Any mill will do, from a small, hand-cranked mill to a larger electric species.

If milling your own flour feels daunting, take some advice from Carissa Waechter, who mills multiple times per week. “It comes to us in wheatberry form, so it looks like a grain that you would buy,” she said. “There’s usually some sticks and some leaves — it’s a farm product. We go through that and clean out anything that wouldn’t work. I find that, for a piecrust, I want it really fine, and for a sourdough I want it really coarse. We mill here twice a week, and often more in the summer. In a perfect world, we mill the flour and throw it right in the sourdough. It’s kind of wild and it makes our sourdough go nuts. If I’m using the recipe, I need it really cold. Your wheat has to be super, super cold. We’ll refrigerate it the night before, or a couple of days before.”

Because commercial flours have had their oils extracted, they can sit on a shelf for an indeterminate amount of time before spoiling. Freshly milled flour, however, can spoil. “A cool, dry place is the best storage,” Katie Baldwin said. “I liken it to coffee beans: If you have the ability and the appreciation for the flavor profile of the wheat, you can detect a quality of freshness. If you could mill to order for yourself, that would be ideal.” Milled fresh flour, if kept in a cool, dry place, will hold for many weeks, and possibly up to two months.

You can tailor the grind to suit your particular needs. Ms. Baldwin suggests superfine for pasta, medium-to-coarse for bread, and coarse for steel-cut.


Mill House Inn-Amber Waves Wheat Pancakes

By Chef Carolyn Stec

Makes 20 pancakes

 Wet Ingredients:

3 eggs

1 pint buttermilk

2 Tbsp. pure maple syrup

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/8 tsp. each allspice, cloves, nutmeg

½ tsp. cinnamon

Dry Ingredients:

1 to 1 ½ lb. Amber Waves whole-wheat flour

½ oz. baking powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. fine sea salt

Method:

Whisk together wet ingredients and sift together dry ingredients. Mix wet and dry ingredients until just combined. Let rest 10 minutes. The batter should be thick. If it seems dry, add a little bit of water, but do not make the batter runny. You do not want the batter to spread much when on the griddle.

Heat a griddle or skillet to medium heat and butter the pan. Scoop ¼ cup batter for each pancake. Cook until golden brown and flip the pancake. Cook until golden brown on both sides. Serve warm.

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