Based on the comments and my own impressions I am convinced that my first comparison test using flour milled from Red Fife wheat wasn’t representative and that my methods need polishing. I tried to force a square peg into a round hole by having the whole grain Red Fife stand in for white bread flour in a rustic baguette. This round I set out to let it play more closely to its intended role.
For a more fair and relevant test I pan-baked two whole wheat loaves, one with store brand whole wheat flour and the other with the stone ground, whole grain Red Fife flour that I bought at Pantry.
As is my semi-default practice I used a recipe from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. True to Reinhart form it leans on long fermentation times and calls for both a soaker and a poolish. Sounds bizarre and like a lot of work, I know, but the bit of extra preparation is worth it.
The soaker is just water and coarsely-ground grain. The recipe is flexible about which grain you choose (corn, rye, wheat) and I assume the soaking is just to soften it up. I’ve had success using corn and rye before but wanting to keep the test as pure as possible I just used more of the same flour.
Poolish is a fancy term for a bit of dough, mixed wet and without the salt, that gives some of the yeast a head start on developing those familiar yeasty flavours and their leavening power. If you have everything together and use a digital scale the soaker and poolish only take a couple minutes to prepare the day before you bake.
Tasters strongly preferred the Red Fife bread. It smelled of honey, beer and had the pleasant warm grain taste of Hovis biscuits. The crust was crisper and the colour of the crust and crumb were both darker and warmer. The only complaints registered were that the crumb was a bit dry and the loaf was under-leavened. On both counts I’m willing to accept at least part of the blame on the assumption that technique may have played a role.
The store brand loaf was alright at first but then an odd chemical taste and smell that reminded me of middle school shop class asserted itself and left a bitter, astringent sensation on the sides of my tongue. The crust was quite limp and there was little contrast in colour between the crust and crumb but the texture was more open and better leavened than the Red Fife.
Alas the question of whether Ontario-grown wheat delivers quality for money is, to an extent, left unanswered. I doubt many readers are surprised that store brand flour pales in comparison to a premium product–note though that it was a runaway victory–so I guess what I need to find is a non-Ontario flour with a similar price and premium marketing.
The Red Fife produced the best whole wheat loaf I have ever made and really embarrassed the store brand flour. While I admit that trying to force it to make a rustic baguette was a stretch I don’t make enough whole wheat bread to warrant the special trip and price that increases concerns about spoilage for this advantage alone. I understand that this Red Fife flour can be used to make very good sourdough bread and I think that will be my next test.