Ancient Wheats and flour.

JohnD's picture

The ancient flour…….. Oxford, England…2010


It was with great expectations that we visited John Letts` plots of ancient cereals he grows at Wheatley near Oxford. Mainly wheats and some Rye, the aim of Johns growing is to encourage diversity. Rye will cross pollinate, so John has planted numerous types of Rye together, from Latvia, Ireland, Canada etc to establish a diverse gene pool, in direct contrast to the mainstreams monoculturing and highly selected narrow gene pool. This has many implications for our food supply…later.

My expectations were met I must say. The wheat is tall almost as tall as an average sized person. This is in stark contrast to the modern wheats being grown at the end of the field, whuch are barely knee high…the result of intensive selection and breeding inorder to dwarf the stems to enable easy harvesting with machinery and to prevent lodging…this is when the wheat actually falls over and is prostrate from strong winds or rain. But what was never selected, is the flavour and organoleptic criteria…the actual edibility of the wheats and that they make good bread. Breeding also selected for an increase in the insoluble (in water) proteins gluten and gliadin, which is a change from wheats natural profile of proteins, and a change which may have health implications…but which enabled more architecturally stable bread which we have come to accept as the norm…that is, its higher and lighter…but it may well be less digestible. It seems that the old strains of wheat which are being conserved and grown, especially in France, have more protein than modern wheat, and it is the water soluble proteins, which are non-allergenic. Research by the Weston -Price foundation, which I havent seen yet, evidently claims that the  diploid/tetraploid wheats(..Einkorn and Emmer)that is the Ancient wheats which are not hexaploids like modern bread wheat, do not contain the peptide chain on the 3rd chromosone which is responsible for the allergenic response some people have to modern wheat. This genome (DD) appears to have come from the natural crossing of the older wheats with the wild grass triticum tauschii. The time scale of "older" is interesting in that hexaploid wheats have been found at the Indian site Mehrgarh and dated to 6000bce, so the term "modern wheats" needs qualification, and mostly refers to the free-threshing varieties, but even these were in evidence 3000 bce.

John`s wheats were resplendent in divergence. There were many types growing together…”hedgehog” heads clumped and spikey, Einkorn, the neolithic wheat with its single head of grain, Rivett wheats with double rows and large awns, Emmer, Spelt, Durums and Khorassan (Kamut), tall ones , shorter ones, dark heads or yellow and red…all sourced from gene banks or from chance discoveries, such as the old farmer in the mountains of Asturias (Spain) who was still growing Emmer, probably brought to his area 3000 years ago. Modern geneticists also search for these wheats, but to extract genes to insert into other varieties to make them drought resistant or disease resistant or glow in the dark….rather than just using the genetic diversity there present, as is. Farmers in past times who grew genetically diverse crops would always get a yield despite weather or pestilence…modern genetically uniform crops will all die under selection pressures as they are all of the same makeup.

It was so delightful to walk through the high Rye and Wheat, making jokes about ergot and wanting to roll in the fields and play… the neighbouring field of modern dwarf wheat inspired no such glee, but a sadness actually…they all looked like prisoners …of some evil which had made them all uniform…and not of the type which allowed the joy of “when a body meets a body, coming through the Rye”….which we were revelling in.

Johns accompanying explanation of the history of wheat, illuminated by the heads he was cutting as he spoke, was the best sort of education for a baker. It was a little dizzying as he showed us diploid and tetraploid wheats which had evolved with human selection, natural mutation and even crossing with wild grasses.

Earlier that day I had made bread with the baker Geoff Coleman from Wheatley, who bakes for the Oxford bread group. We used the ancient wheats flour, which many bakers had rejected or had great difficulty with. A short process and an active leaven proved very successful, and the softish dough rose well on its bulk proof, and again in the bannetons. We baked them and were rewarded with richly coloured well risen and light breads of exceptional flavour…this is what has been bred out of wheat..we all had an almost insatiable taste for this bread, and ate quite a bit. It was even better the next day and again I ate more than usual because it had an appealing and compelling edibility..texture and flavour.

I also toasted some the next day and I was immediately aware of its toasty/oaten aroma. With good butter it is the sweetest (in the non saccharine sense) and most  delicious bread I have eaten, and again, had seconds. It was light and very digestible.

This is The Grail really, as the leaven/sourdough process is the culinary/cultural process which evolved with these wheats…much as modern wheats are the familiar of monocultured white yeast breads .


Although it appeared quite light, the Ancient wheat flour, which was a mix of John`s wheats, produced  a richly coloured dark brown bread, so the extraction (T80) was ideal really. I used my wholemeal wheat leaven at about 20% of the flour quantity to initiate the fermentation, with cool water and sea salt. The dough was strong and produced gluten similar in strength to a conventional organic flour composed of largely English wheat,  it showed signs of strength including a gritty feel but was powdery as well, usually a hallmark of softer wheats.

The dough was softish and stable in that it did not flow or go soft quickly.


 The dough was bulk proofed for 1 hour, then shaped into a ball, rolled in the flour, and risen in a cloth lined wicker basket for 2 ½ hours. After proof it was turned onto a peel, slashed shallowly in an extensive checker board and baked at 430 o for 30mins. The loaf had good oven spring and attained plenty of volume. It emerged glowing and deeply coloured with the cuts being chocolatey and attractive, framed by the residual flour from the cloths, which barely scorched and was still creamy. It was an unusually  rich and solid colour, more so than in any conventional sourdough or other loaf  ive ever seen.


The flavour of the bread was quite intense at first, with numerous notes unlike many regular breads. These were largely nutty/oaty flavours with plenty of fruity streams from the fermentation. The most striking to me was the flavour of the crust which was almost unfamiliar, and very moreish. The closest notes are of malt and caramel and of spelt, but theres also cocoa and really odd flavours akin to the Australian wild berry called kutjera by the Aranda people….which marries cocoa and mustard .


We ate it with a lamb and vegetable stew, nice and wet for bread cuisine, and they were perfect partners….but it was superb just with good butter.






rossnroller 2010 August 5

...your description of the ancient wheats flour bread is tantalising. Oh, to taste some.

What is it about plant breeding - it seems that as knowledge of bio-genetics (am I in the right scientific ballpark here?) has increased, flavour has decreased. Not only with wheat, but fruits and vegetables also. It's a damned shame that commercial considerations like cosmetic appearance and ease of growing have been prioritised over biodiversity and flavour for so long that taste has been bred out of mainstream varieties. How the mighty buck warps values. Imagine where we might be if the research had gone into enhancing flavour as a top priority...

I'm with you on sampling bread with butter (UNSALTED!). There's nothing better than this simple combination for assessing and enjoying great bread. I never finish a good bread without adding honey to a buttered slice or three, either.

Like many others, I'm sure, am really enjoying these new posts of yours.


JohnD's picture
JohnD 2010 August 5

Thats it Ross, there was never any consideration given to edibility...just so the wheat was short and suitable for mass crops and easy harvesting. When the "Green revolution" rices were introduced to Asia they produced 3 times more rice, but the locals hated the taste of it and after 2 or 3 years refused to grow was fertilizer and pesticide/herbicide dependant too, so the rice paddies which had been functioning for thousands of years were polluted and all the friendly snails etc were killed off and the traditional strains of rice ...hundreds of them were lost!

It was an absolute disaster. Thanks Scientists for tunnel vision....and incredible arrogance!

LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2010 August 6

 Interesting thoughts.  The only food product that I can think of that demands the taste to be good is wine.  I know clones of grape varieties are more highly desired over others because they make a better tasting wine.  I have been involved with agriculture my whole life and seems that the mainstream industry is only concerned with more product that looks nice.  The industry develops crops with the features they want but I can't ever think of a case where they consider taste.  I grow a lot of my own food that I eat and would love to grow my own grains if I could figure out an easy way to harvest and thresh them.  Harvesting and threshing is either a lot of work or costs lots of money for the equipment.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2010 August 7

Pretty remarkable when you consider that they are all actually food which we shows the direction of agriculture, that is, more crops more money. Traditionally, food was selected for eating quality along with viability. Thats why its worth growing heritage strains of vegetables..they taste so good, and always better than commercial strains. Apples are a good case...only bred for growing and storing and shipping criteria...try and buy a good old Jonathon apple...almost impossible...the hideous overly sweet new types (we are only allowed 4or5) are all selected for max sweetness and no acidity...they make me feel sick and i never eat apples unless i can get Jonathons or Coxs pippin etc...trees used to be destroyed if they had unworthy fruit...or cidered. The book Small scale grain raising is worth a look.

LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2010 August 7

 Thanks John for the info on the book I'll take a look at it.  I know you have written at least a book on sourdough but I have yet taken time to see if I can find it here in the US.  Is there a place that shows the contents of the book?

Tonight I cut open the first watermelon of the year and it taste great.  The variety is heirloom that I have been saving the seeds from for a number of years.  We grow them without watering them and they are sweet and full of flavor from the heart right out to the rind.  You can't find watermelons that taste like this in the store so it is always a pleasure to eat the ones we grow.


Aristote 2010 August 9



Thanks a lot indeed John about these thoughts and for sharing this experience with us.

I just have a little remark if I may take the liberty. If my memory is good, there is no monoploid wheat or relatives created by "Mother Nature". All the cultivated wheats or relatives (like small spelt or einkorn ; emmer ; korosan ; etc), even the oldest ones, are all at least diploid (monoploidy is not possible for these species, as for us) and usually tetraploid. Moreover, spelt is, like wheat, hexaploid.

If we play with genetic, wheat is a toy for technicians because you can "easily" double or multiply its number of chromosomes, offering a very wide play ground for sorcery apprentices. Even without modifying the genome with biotechnologies, crossing and selections helped our agronomists to select wheat species which contain high gluten rates with excellent physical properties matching perfectly the goals of the bread industry : volume ! This has been made without taking care at all about nutrition and digestibility.

An other precision I would like to add : this is not due to the scientists but to the technicians and bakers who just care about a market and their own profit (without taking care of the consumer). Scientists are here to reveal the knowledge, not to pervert the world. Some do but there are black sheeps everywhere. Like said Rabelais (French author of the 16th century) : "Science without conscience is the ruin of the soul".

A good article about ployploidy :

An other one about the taxonomy of wheat :

For further information, Google is there ! ;-)



rossnroller 2010 August 9

I think you make some valid points. In a sense, the market gets what it deserves. The trouble is, the capitalist system kicks in and bottom line thinking starts to deny us choice...then it's a hell of a struggle to be heard! That's why this current grass roots movement towards organic produce and taking back responsibility for your own diet (as far as possible) is vitally important. There is a glimmer of hope at last, as the movement gathers momentum and starts to encroach on mainsteam awareness. And with demand, maybe scientists will get back on track and start focusing on quality rather than working to facilitate mass-production as cheaply as possible.


JohnD's picture
JohnD 2010 August 9

Thanks Aristote for correcting the terminology. Of course you are correct. I simply confused "monococcum" with monoploid...duuuh. and thinking about the single row of grains. The AA BB CC DD genome  labels are more exact and easy to follow....and thankyou, yes Spelt is a hexaploid, not a true "Ancient wheat", ive corrected the text. I would like to see the research quoted (they lumped Spelt with Emmer), but the site just wont open..yet...  


With my reference to the "green revolution" I think its a valid case of how science (scientists) didnt do enough work on the issue and examine all the parameters ( were "unscientific") and rushed in...with disastrous results, and its not the first time....its about not being linear in thinking....linearity is a hallmark of the Cartesian mindset weve inherited and it doesnt mesh with or describe observable reality...."string theory" is closer!.... bring on integral analysis!!

Thankyou again for your corrections.

Aristote 2010 August 10

I found a document quite interesting and easy to understand, even if it is not comprehensive :

Sorry, it is not in English but it is really easy.

Epeautre = Spelt

Engrain = Small spelt or Einkorn

Amidonnier = Emmer

Blé = Wheat

Poulard = ? kind of hard wheat

sauvage = wild

domestique = domestic

cultivé = cultivated


Otherwise, there is this version with scientific names :


I hope you will enjoy.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2010 August 10

Hi Joe, good to hear from you...Firebeard, thats great...a Norse hero lol...I joined that site , so will keep my eye out for developments. Be back in UK pretty regularly, so be good to catch up...are you building a bakery too?...beard and bird? will send my email to u on that site.

best John

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2010 August 10

Thanks very much Aristote, and for the translations. I havent seen that term for Emmer... im familiar with these charts in English...evidently Epeautre was L Poilanes "secret" ingredient in those hefty and flavousome boule he used to make.

Fire Beard's picture
Fire Beard 2010 August 11

We are just playing, I don't know nearly enought to run a bakery. We are running a not for profit three day gathering for home bakers at the end of this month. I might have a go at small scale baking to order like Mick (bethesdabakers ) does. I think in order to learn I need to bake more bread which  of course means finding people to eat it.

Glad to here that you will be back in th Uk, it would be good to see you again.


Andrew Forbes's picture
Andrew Forbes 2010 August 21

Hi Aristote

Poulard = rivet wheat

Like Durums these are tetraploid wheats, and can be described as durums for northern European climates. They share characteristics with durums such as large grain, bearded, very tall and at least peduncle (the top piece of straw before ear and after last node) will be filled with pith as opposed to hollow (to hold up the typically heavy ear?). They can indeed be used for pasta making. They were typically part of the cereal planting portfolio of medieval (and later till about mid 19th C) UK farmers, being in some sense maybe a crop of last resort, the least likely to fail from point of view of disease, also can do well on poor soil, potentially very productive but resulting flour not suitable for bread making by itself. They are some of slowest wheats to grow and in UK should be sown as early as September, may give the illusion of failing to grow properly early on but in the end tiller freely. Reports on susceptibility to lodging vary.

One in particular recurs in historical texts as being the most popular/typical, starting out known as Duck Bill or Dugdale wheat (see here from 1644), then know as grey poll and later Blue Cone Rivet - BUT it happens in Vilmorin's wheat catalogue of 1880 it is actually given first name "Poulard d'Australie" here. Whether it really was a popular crop early on in Australia I have no clue - quite often such names have no real significance other than as a seeds sales person's tactic to make a wheat seem more exotic and exciting than otherwise.

In the UK wheat collection we only have remaining "Percival's Blue Cone Rivet" which Percival's book of 1934 states was raised from a single grain. Here at Brockwell Bake Association we hope to be receiving  for sowing this September a supply of this wheat from France, with hopefully a broader genetic base than Percival's.

Here, second pic, is a (suspected) single ear from within our this year's crop of John Letts' Winter mix - unfortunately it was stolen from our allotments patch - I guess for flower arranging.

Andy Forbes

Andrew Forbes's picture
Andrew Forbes 2010 August 21

Hi all, especially John and Joe,

It was great to have John back in UK and be able to meet up with him again - always an inspiring encounter!

Following his talk on heritage wheats at last year's Brockwell Bake event, John Letts was good enough to let us (the Brockwell Bake Association) grow some of his Winter Heritage Wheat mix on allotments, school and community gardens around Lambeth, South London this last season. We've just completed our first harvest, pics here and many other pics of this wheat for those interested around relevant other galleries on

I also have baked with John's heritage mix flour. We have only baked half a loaf from our own crop so far, and that I managed to over proof, nonetheless flavour was definitely very rewarding, as well as milling very nicely.

On John's remark that modern wheats are "barely knee high…the result of intensive selection and breeding in order to dwarf the stems to enable easy harvesting with machinery and to prevent lodging …" I think I would add the central purpose of "Green Revolution" wheat dwarfing was to allow application of modern chemical fertilizer giving larger heavier ears/grains, without wheat lodging from also being taller (than without application of fertilizer). The dwarfing process also happened under ground as well as above ground with root system shrinking in size and depth, again aimed at collecting surface applied fertilizer (and other chemicals such as growth regulators) thus modern wheats are much poorer at collecting naturally available nutrients than their predecessors. The pedigree of modern wheats pre-dwarfing era is in any case towards the more fussy, rarefied wheats that will do well in optimum conditions but cannot cope so well with either a broad spectrum of diseases (though they may have been crossed for specific rusts 'vertical' resistance and so on) or less than very fertile ground in comparison with more robust heritage types (particularly wetter UK climate examples).

What has really struck us from the few small lines of modern wheat we grew alongside our heritage wheats is just how totally pathetic modern wheats are as a crop when grown without fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and growth regulator. See pics here for the modern Paragon and  AC Barrie wheat we had, even more so on a Community Farm we sowed at here - just totally laughable but also scary. Even a professionally bio-dynamically farmed modern wheat crop that me and John had chance to inspect was really very poor in potential yield in comparison with what I know is possible with quite modest effort and organic input with older wheats. The baker Andrew Whitley recently wrote me that he wanted to try growing some heritage wheats in Scotland to see whether they can "deliver a (better) compromise between absolute yield and bread quality" but as I replied it appears to me that there is no such debate once chemical inputs are taken out or just reduced in the equation, with this amended equation heritage wheats can then beat modern both for quality, yield and dependability. What happens if there is a sudden big price hike or interruption in production of all or any of these chemicals that the modern wheats are so addicted to and dependant on? The result would be almost total developed world wheat harvest failure - maybe 25% of norm, even in an otherwise good year I would guess - and then most non-organic developed world commercial farmers have forgotten how to nurture a wheat crop other than with use of chemicals. And of course all these chemical inputs are dependant on fossil fuel for their production and application so even if there is no sudden crisis in their availability, we can predict a steady increase in their cost over the next few decades such as to possibly put "modern wheats" out of business, unless agro-business manages to exclude the possibility of other lines of development.

John didn't touch on the issue that currently EU laws prohibit trading in agricultural seeds that are not genetically homogeneous and have not been subjected to numerous expensive tests and preparation processes etc etc which is a serious barrier to the effective use of our remaining genetic heritage in wheats other than by big agro-business (structured to their interests) - a serious barrier for both Brockwell Bake, farmers we are working with and for John Letts.

Andy Forbes

EricD's picture
EricD 2010 August 22

Thanks for these precisions It's very intersting. In fact, all the discussion is very interesting.

Concerning the "Poulard d'Australie", maybe the name was for commecial purpose. Whatever, this name has been given because, when it became populard in the north of France, it was coming back from Australia. But, like all the wheats grown in Australia t this time, it had a European origin.

But, it's true that the exotic aspect of something coming from Australia was a good promotion argument... French have always had this romantic attraction for things coming from over-seas. That's why also Australia has always been so attractive for French.

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