Wallabi's Farm: The English Hototogisu Bakery and Farm Blog

Hello, my name is Sara. In 2005 my husband and I bought an old farmhouse in Okayama, borrowed a few fields and set to building ourselves a pleasant rural life. Now, several years on, we have fields a-plenty, what was until the end of 2012 a wheaty bread bakery and is now prepping to be a gluten-free space, and have incorporated our efforts into the Hototogisu Bakery and Farm. Welcome!

Monday, March 04, 2013

米粉! Or, just sharing more about our move to go gluten free than ever you wanted to know

Sorry for the gratuitous use of Japanese in the post title there - it reads "komeko" or rice flour, and is there because I have exciting news to share: today we sent off 60 kilograms of our homegrown rice to be milled in a very high-tech machine into superfine rice flour, one of the best inventions ever (an invention considerably better than sliced bread to one in my position!). Also fantastic in this project is the fact that the mill is local, and the head of the milling company knows us - he used to come buy bread. Because of that he drove out to the farm to deliver samples and talk about milling in person, and he and Shuzo seem to have gotten along fabulously. Okayama is a nice, connected place and I love to see our network expanding.

I gather rice flour has a pretty bad reputation in the gluten-free baking world, and indeed, the rice I have milled in my countertop mill has retained a bit of sandiness. However! This fancy new milling machine, recently perfected, if I understand a'right, makes a very different sort of flour - one that gives me yummy soft-on-the-inside-crisp-on-the-outside biscuits and (savory) scones and deep, abiding happiness in the shape of a grilled cheese sandwich. 

When I first went gluten-free, I gave up completely on baked goods. Everything I read warned of bread the consistency of cardboard, brownies with bean flour in them and the need to use intimidating ingredients like xanthum gum if one hoped to bake anything both gluten-free and edible. Since I was going gluten-free after several years of baking wheat bread for a living, I decided disappointment was inevitable and didn't even try baking bread until my mother, also gluten-free, visited from the States and brought a suitcase full of exotic ingredients and mixes. The pancakes were a success, but the bread was the predicted failure, a gummy, gritty white mass flavored too strongly with cinnamon sugar. In the years that followed I managed a few successes - I can make crepes and, if I can guiltlessly manage the amount of sugar required, brown sugar donuts. My cornbread was a stellar success for about half an hour, after which point I sank into a stupor and slowly assembled the conclusion that the cornbread was contaminated with gluten (it was: the lovely organic cornmeal was processed on equipment shared with wheat).

With all of these failures, and the continued demand for the wheaty bread from our bakery, I never dreamed we could make the bakery gluten-free. Although the government agricultural bureau is pushing rice flour and "米粉パン" is everywhere, most of the products made with it are really just wheat products with rice flour added (pick up a loaf of "sourdough rice bread" sometime and check the ingredients to see if they don't begin "wheat, rice, yeast, sourdough" with sugar making a prominent appearance as well), and, to judge by appearance (all I have to go on, you see - I can't eat them), they are not very good. So, though I was still getting sick from the flour in the air (or on my husband or daughter), we tried a myriad of ways to make the wheaty bakery work - I wore gloves, I wore a mask, I never, ever, ever ate or drank anything prepared in the bakery, we hired sales help and called the cleaning man - until one day (sometime around the last time I got glutened, when I had an attack of vertigo in the middle of preparing for one of the busiest weeks of the year) Shuzo decided he couldn't continue being the reason I was getting sick and began making plans to quit.

When we started the bakery 5 years ago, I was the main baker, and when I went gluten-free I had so much emotionally invested in the bakery - it's success as a business and it's goal to feed people really well - that I had no desire to close the bakery. I was sad I had to leave my job but getting well so rapidly that (really, truly) anything seemed possible, and I was new enough to the gluten-free world to think I could continue with the sales, help with the cleaning and go on living next door to a cloud of flour without ill effect. It took two years of happy healthy highs contrasting with very deep ill lows to realize the mistake, and even longer to find the way out. We decided to quit baking bread without anything definite to turn to - we couldn't try out new products while continuing to bake bread because everything would be contaminated with wheat, and towards the end of the year, when our part-time helpers had moved on to other things, planning (ordinary conversation, too) was difficult as Shuzo was trapped inside the floury building and I was barred from entering.

Two months in to the new endeavor, now, things are beginning to fall in to place. We've gone through a long lit of products and traveling deli menus, and even settled on a new name (because though Hototogisu Bakery and Farm continues to work in English, パン屋ホトトギスin Japanese has "bread" in it - a deli, however, can be anything we want) and we've come out with a focus (or two, or three. but we're trying to stick to one at a time). The very expensive ovens being too big to move now that we've added a shop and deck to the original building, and our largest single crop being rice, rice flour baked goods are a logical choice, and now that we've found a place that will make superfine flour for us and settled on a few recipes that perform well and consistenly, rice flour baked goods are looking like a financially viable choice as well. There are an awful lot more things we want to make - we also grow black soybeans and have very large and expensive fermenting equipment, so we'll manage tempeh or natto before too long - but the Traveling Deli gives us an outlet for those things and a good reason to keep growing all the fun veggies. Clarity grows day by day!

(That was a very long story! I can't imagine many (any?) of you read all that, but if you did - thanks! At any rate, writing it out has been very helpful, and if blogger doesn't eat my post here I should be able to come back and pull out a few points for the webpage and upcoming webshop. Right?)


At 8:05 PM, Blogger Jo Tomooka said...

I used to get excited when I saw baked products here using rice flour as I assumed that meant they were gluten free. Of course looking at the ingredients list on the back of the products I realised that they either just added additional gluten, or as you said just added a bit of rice flour into the normal flour mix. The technology is improving every day though and hopefully your bakery will be able to show others that rice flour can be used alone to make delicious products.

At 10:25 PM, Blogger shinshu life said...

If you ever sell online please do blog about it- I would love to try some crispy rice bread! We have a 100% rice flour rice bread bakery in the village (their biggest customer is kinders and schols with allergy issues) but the bread is truly awful (IMO) it's really gluey and tastes undercooked even when well cooked. Crispy rice bread sounds fabulous!

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Add me to those who want to taste your GF goodies, but can't get to your shop. It would also be nice to buy bags of rice flour, too. I eat low carb mostly, but have been adding rice back lately. I miss morning toast though... would love to taste your bread.


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