We were first introduced to Hayden Flour Mills through the famed Arizona pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco, who now use Hayden’s flours to make their exceptional crusts and pastas. After having dined at both Bianco locations a multitude of times over the years, we had begun to wonder if their secret lie more in preparation or source material. Of course, both are key, and Bianco had already reached great success well before switching over to Hayden’s flours, but a chef like Chris Bianco doesn’t just switch primary flour sources on a whim, and we can’t help but feel they’ve elevated their work with the addition of Hayden, at least a bit.
Hayden Flour Mills is a flour mill based in Queen Creek, Arizona, a small town less than an hour Southeast of Phoenix, building on the mythical foundations of the historic Tempe mill. They mill exclusively heritage grains, which are grown and hand-cultivated by small local farms, and ground using rare traditional Austrian stone mills, of which they have three (at the time of our writing this). All of the grain varietals are inherently non-GMO, and due to the heartier nature of heirloom stock, no herbicides or pesticides are used in their production.
While in Phoenix, we made an uncharacteristic stop in at a Sprouts and were pleasantly surprised by a decently-sized display of products local to Arizona, including Hayden Flour Mills’ flours and pancake mixes, along with their newest venture – crackers. Despite the fact that we’d been dying to bake with their White Sonora Wheat*, we were on the road, and flour is just about the silliest item we could have purchased. So instead, bound to practicality, we picked up the three cracker varieties they had available: Red Fife Wheat, Blue Beard Semolina, and Emmer Farro – the fourth and final in the series being of course the White Sonora Wheat we’d been looking to try. Still, we were excited for the other three all the same.
Their ingredients are simple: the crackers’ respective grain, followed by non-GMO canola oil, sugar and salt. Outside of just a few others, these are the cleanest crackers we’ve seen yet, and by far the most intriguing. The biggest difference between these and those is how bare Hayden leaves their grain. Most other crackers in this sphere reliantly add herbs like rosemary, and fruits such as red pepper to distract from their bland bases – generic varieties of wheat, rice, etc. It’s exciting to see such bold minimalism in a field that in the last decade has become almost parodically overindulgent in terms of flavour stacking.
As comparatively simple as Hayden’s crackers might be, we do still wish the few ingredients used were cleaner. Neither the canola oil nor the sugar are organic. And while we understand the impulse to use canola oil for its neutral flavour, better alternatives exist. Hayden is clearly committed to reviving healthier, more sustainable agricultural models, so the non-GMO canola oil and sugar choices feel like a copout.
An aside – we find it frustrating the increasingly common practice of employing ‘non-GMO’ ingredients as equivalent stand-ins for organic ones. Though we mostly appreciate the attention that issues relating to genetic modification have gotten in the past few years (especially in as much as it has helped raise awareness of heirloom seed stock), we find it troubling that so many people allow themselves to be so distracted by that one factor, to the degree that they now eschew concern for how their food was actually grown and cultivated. ‘Non-GMO’ food products are just as likely to be grown in poor agricultural conditions, with no interest in soil preservation, pollution of water tables, toxin absorption, or any of the many other issues that inspired the rise of organic, biodynamic, and permacultural approaches in the first place.
We recognize that organic certification programs often have their own – at the very least that they’re cost prohibitive for many producers, but that is where information transparency on the part of producers (Hayden has done their part in this regard where their grains are concerned) should come into play, not regressive acceptance of lower standards that distract from arguably more important issues.
Returning to the crackers – though the heritage grains call more obvious attention to themselves flavourally (see below), texturally they’re familiar in that they resemble something like a graham cracker, but with more body and heft – more or less depending on the specific variety. They’re undecorated and straightforward, as per their ingredients, and are well-suited for bearing the weight of substantial toppings (though unlike most crackers, pairing with these grains does require a bit of forethought.)
Red Fife Wheat – Though it ends on a mildly sweet note, Red Fife was the ‘strongest’ tasting of this sampling, with a very rich, full flavour strongly suggestive of some of the deeper notes found in olive oil. Similarly, the fattiness also sort of takes shape in the form of raw pecan. More than with the other two, the graham cracker similarity is most striking here, offering an especially soft texture and muted bite.
Blue Beard Semolina – Significantly crispier in texture, Blue Beard’s got a good crack to it, and a clean, bright profile that corresponds appropriately. This might be the most accessible of the three we tried, with the taste possessing something that reminded us vaguely of Wheat Thins. If it’s accessible, it’s also somewhat plain, but in crackers which seem to beg so imploringly to be paired with other foods, it feels unfair to fault them for it.
Emmer Farro – Without a doubt our favourite, this cracker had the lightest texture and best balanced flavour of the bunch. Following the initial bite, you’re presented with a nice give that upon further chewing reveals a pleasantly coarse granularity. A lovely buttery flavour couples up with the distinctive bitter fattiness of walnut. To our palettes the most complex, but also the one we found easiest to pair with.
All are made with just enough sugar to bring out the grains’ natural sweetness, without turning them into dessert items, or requiring a compensatory over-salting to make up for it. The salt they do employ closely resembles (if it isn’t in fact) pretzel salt, and is used in a similarly sparse pattern of distribution also resembling pretzels. It’s pretty pleasurable too, getting surprise bites with salt to accent the otherwise soft-spoken grains.
While we can’t say for sure that it’s directly related to their being heritage varietals, it was interesting to taste so many fatty compounds (butter, olive oil, pecan, walnut) in these decidedly unflavoured crackers. It certainly isn’t something we’ve ever experienced in crackers made with ‘regular’ grains, flavoured or not, and as such it was enough to make us wonder if those fatty tasting compounds used to be a normal part of the flavour profile of grains, accidentally bred out over the years in favour of other traits.
These are good crackers, especially considering how absolutely reductionist they are by design – early batches didn’t even have sugar in them! In a field that’s generally devoid of true innovation, Hayden Flour Mills is definitely doing something different. They’re a young company, so it’ll be exciting to watch them grow. We hope the standards they hold their own grains to will eventually trickle down to their secondary ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), but considering how few other shortcuts they’ve taken up to this point we’ll optimistically hold out for that possibility.
*White Sonora wheat is the oldest surviving wheat varietal grown in North America with a documented history dating back to at least the 1700s.
For those interested in the resurgence of ancient grains in an increasingly gluten-phobic culture, Lauren Saria wrote a great article on the topic for the Phoenix New Times.