‘Heritage grains’ return as tasty alternatives, and the trend is sprouting here

Pittsburgh Post Gazette | August 11, 2011

As reported by Virginia Phillips in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette August 11  2011 and on-line at post-gazette.com:

” ‘Profoundly herbaceous. Nutty fresh. Deep toasty caramel notes.’ Would you guess this is the vocabulary of a professional grain taster, sitting down every day — as does Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, specialty producers — to somewhere between six and 30 spoonsful of plain boiled heritage grains? The variety described is Red Fife, America’s preferred bread flour in the 19th century, now being revived.

Identifying flavor, aroma and ‘finish’ not in wine but in wheat may be a new thought, since local heritage grain has just stepped on stage in Western Pennsylvania. Most of us haven’t tasted much of it.

We are about to have a chance to relearn what the collective American palate once knew about our grain heritage when grain was chosen for flavor, grown close to home and ground fresh.

‘It’s taken for granted in Europe that grain has terroir, reflects the soil and climate in which it grows,’ says Mr. Roberts. ‘People have grain mills on their countertops. They search the countryside for farmers with the best-tasting grains.’

Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C. is fabled among chefs and food enthusiasts who revel in the tastes and textures of its Southern ‘antebellum’ grains, brought by Mr. Roberts from the verge of extinction. He discovered some of the plants that were the source of the once-beloved Dixie flours and corn meals unrecognized by landowners, in abandoned fields and back gardens.

The new grain specialists are also inspired by the ‘ancient’ hard-hulled varieties, such as spelt, emmer and einkorn, staffs of life cited in the Bible.

If this sounds like a precious effort for a boutique market, consider the role grain plays in what we grow and what we eat.

For Chef Dan Barber, the James Beard Foundation’s top chef in America in 2009 (and who says he feels like his head is in a wheat field right now because he is writing a book about this nation’s relationship to its food), “It all comes down to grain.

‘Eighty percent of agricultural production is devoted to raising grain to feed us or animals. We’ll never achieve sustainability if we limit our focus to the produce and proteins. They represent a tiny fraction of the farming landscape.’

The executive chef of the renowned restaurants Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., loads so many local grains into his menus he is hard pressed to remember if it was New York State emmer bread or a farro dish that recently tickled the palates of President Obama and his family.

Any way you look at it, a local food supply lacking its staples has a big hole in it.

Modest resurgences of organic heritage grain are being fueled by pioneers across the country — Vermont, New York, Washington state, the Carolinas.

We can now add an outpost of our own.

Weatherbury Farm near Avella, Washington County, was named for Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’ These idyllic acres might feel like a lonely spot on the globe to organic farmer Nigel Tudor — if the energetic 30-year-old had time for introspection.

Mr. Tudor for now will be the only Western Pennsylvania grower not only to grow and harvest certified organic specialty grains but also to mill them on the farm. This fall Weatherbury will begin selling its ‘estate’ line of flours and whole grains. The farmstead wheat, rye, corn, spelt and farro products will have the milling date stamped on the bag.

Mr. Tudor, with his parents Marcy and Dale, has retooled the 102-acre family farm acquired in 1986 when the family moved from Ross.

The family will continue to sell grass-fed beef and lamb and to host B&B farm ‘hay-vacations,’ but their passionate intent is to join the few who grow organic heritage grains and make money at it.

The Tudors face the challenges that all today’s heritage grain growers do. The composed and good-humored Mr. Tudor cites the little things — deer, crows and mice that prefer the heritage organic crop over a neighbor’s conventional ones. Then there are the big obstacles: desperate shortage of seeds, lack of harvesting and processing equipment, undeveloped markets and barely nascent consumer awareness.

About 50 years ago the grain culture changed in America: Small acreages of organic grain faded away, along with the local flour mills that served them. Everything flowed to the Midwest, where conglomerates bred grain for yield and super-consistency. This commodity product could be shipped anywhere to bake the same bread in anybody’s kitchen or bakery.

Seed stock for the old-time varieties dwindled, and equipment sized to maneuver nimbly in small fields fell into disuse.

Fast-backward 135 years to Nigel Tudor’s acres and you find that Avella, like most communities, had its own flour mill (Avella’s operated until 1943).

The farm’s original granary still stands. Mr. Tudor came upon a report of a “farm visiting committee” dated 1876 (the era of Hardy’s novel), attesting to the high quality of wheat growing in the vicinity’s top-soil-rich fields. The yields-per-acre noted would be considered breathtaking today.

Weatherbury, with 30 acres in grain, is in its third year producing heirloom varieties and conducting field trials for them. Mr. Tudor has spent many a night online corralling vintage equipment. New machines for small-scale grain producers are not yet being manufactured in the United States — unlike in Europe.

He draws on his skills as an architectural blacksmith to craft parts and restore to life a sprawling collection of contraptions with noisy belts, rusting flywheels and shuddering screens and blowers. He assembled a new oat roller that looks like a sewing machine. His pride and joy arrived from Austria: a new $10,000 sophisticated grain mill, standing taller than he is, and encased in gleaming pale wood.

The pre-1960 wheat varietals, now the subject of search and rescue by growers like Mr. Tudor, are hardy plants that previous generations selected for robust health and flavor — long before American flour became a commoditized product. Their names reflect places and people. Chef Barber says it was primarily women whose palates did the choosing.

Nigel Tudor is growing Maxine hard red wheat, heritage Red Fife (named for its rescuer, Canadian John Fife), North Dakota Common emmer, Frederick soft white wheat, Oberkulmer spelt, Aroostook rye, Buff hulless oats, and Wapsie Valley open-pollinated corn.

The term of art for these varieties is ‘landrace.’ That means a local variety of domesticated plant (or animal) species that has developed largely by natural processes. Landrace plants, in contrast to agrobusiness-bred ones, draw on a rich gene pool to adapt to climate stresses, soil types and people’s preferences. ‘Landrace is all about genetic biodiversity,’ Mr. Roberts of Anson Mills says. “Diversity is what you celebrate.”

Why is Nigel Tudor betting the farm — ahead of local lip-smacking for specialty grains?

‘I sort of backed into it,’ Mr. Tudor says. ‘We bought a kitchen grain mill. I disliked the obscene price of buying whole grain for it. Since we needed hay for winter bedding, I decided I could grow better grain in the process.’

Mr. Tudor is a man used to finding out what he needs to know. He connected with Elizabeth Dyck, Ph.D., of New York State, organic researcher for 25 years and one of this country’s foremost heritage grain experts.

Ms. Dyck — a farmer herself, with sun-burnished skin, Minnesota T-shirt and wheat-colored hair pinned any which way on top of her head — deploys a modest manner and a musical voice in what she terms a ‘hell for leather’ campaign to get these landrace grains growing again on small organic farms across the nation.

She helps farmers grow high-quality grain with consistent gluten content, water absorption and texture. Excessive variation in any of these poses problems for bakers. Her support includes helping growers establish themselves with restaurants, bakers, distillers and grain processors.

She founded the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network and through it mentors farmers from New England to Washington, Canada and Kenya. She has projects afoot with Penn State and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to boost the infrastructure here and even fold Pennsylvania-grown grain into an already appreciative New York City market. She will bring her expertise to a tasting of Pennsylvania heritage grain here sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh and PASA.

Ms. Dyck and Mr. Tudor are conducting field trials at the Avella farm. She spoke to a small group at a July field day there, sponsored by PASA: ‘Specialty Wheats — Are Heritage and Ancient Grains Right for Your Farm?’

You might ask why we should love emmer, a Russian grain brought to the American Midwest two centuries ago by German immigrants. ‘For one thing,’ suggests Ms. Dyck, ‘it makes incredible pasta.’ What about einkorn, oldest and rarest of the ancients, dating to the Fertile Crescent? ‘Einkorn flour is just delicious and makes fabulous yeast bread. The flour has a yellow cast because of the lutein, an antioxidant thought to have health potential. Both emmer and einkorn are busting out as trend grains in Europe.’

Spelt? With its delicate nutty flavor and easy swap-ability in baking, spelt is a good place for home bakers to start. Maxine wheat? ‘Fragrant, sweet and toasty,’ said field-day participants of Mr. Tudor’s own perfectly risen whole-wheat loaves.

But seeds to grow these flavorful grains are not easy to come by.

Ms. Dyck: ‘I am moving heaven and earth to develop seed supply and seed buying clubs, so that farmers will have several thriving varieties of each grain to choose from.’

Not that there aren’t plenty of obstacles. But Ms. Dyck has faith in Nigel Tudor:

‘He has started small. He is very innovative and enamored of research. He’s way ahead on the issues. He is in the forefront with einkorn — you can’t buy seed for it.’

In Austria Mr. Tudor ‘stumbled on a small bag of einkorn seeds, not in best shape.’ He coaxed the dried-out stash into a few plants, harvested those seeds, and now has a thriving plot, right outside the back door, where he can watch it.

‘I prize his collaboration,’ Ms. Dyck says.

From these little seeds, great things are growing.

Says Glen Roberts: ‘Elizabeth’s M.O. is to go someplace something is not, and create it. This year at a field day there are a handful of people, saying ‘What?’ And next year there will be a few hundred. She is a results person. She compels people to win.’ ”