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.