When humans first started planting seeds, grain was part of their diet. It fueled civilizations. Wheat and grain have always been sacred and life sustaining.
Then the “Green Revolution” hit post-WWII, resulting in an enormous growth in agricultural production based on new varieties offering substantially increased yields, but only through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These modern wheat varieties had shorter, sturdier stems to support the heavier heads and were more uniform in their growth habits, making them ideal for machine harvesting. They need heavy fertilizing and water, and are susceptible to pests and diseases.
MODERN DOWNSIDES: While the yields increased, other characteristics were lost, such as the genetic diversity of the landrace grains, those that developed in specific regions throughout the world over the centuries. These heritage varieties typically thrive in less-than-ideal conditions and if a disease hits, it might take out a couple of plants, not necessarily the entire field.
PROS OF HERITAGE: Heritage grains boast higher nutritional levels. Some varieties, such as black emmer, offer 24 grams of protein per cup of grain versus the 16 grams in modern wheat. Many heritage grains are also helpful for those with gluten intolerance since they’re not bred for a high gluten level to improve baking performance. (Those with celiac disease still cannot eat them because they contain gluten, just not as much.)
And bakers love the rich flavor of the heritage grains when they’re baking or cooking. Not only are they nutritionally superior, but they add an extra layer of flavor.
Because the gluten content is lower when baking with whole heritage grains, bread doesn’t rise as much. Some people choose to ferment the dough, while others mix the heritage grain with an all-purpose organic flour to achieve the desired result.
POPULAR HERITAGE VARIETIES
EINKORN is mentioned in the Bible when Abraham and Sarah made bread for the angels. It has a long, rich history, is good for those who have a gluten intolerance (but not celiac disease) and it makes excellent bread with a little practice.
EMMER, also called farro, can be cooked and eaten like rice, so if you’re looking for a new side-dish option, give emmer a try. It also makes an excellent hot breakfast cereal instead of oatmeal.
SONORA WHITE WHEAT is a spring wheat that originated in Sonora, Mexico in the 1700s, and is valuable partly due to its drought tolerance. In the kitchen, use it just like any other whole wheat. Either grind it to use in baking or cook the wheat berries for other dishes.
RUSAK is one of the varieties the Cowgills are growing from their
original trials. This dark-tinged wheat originated in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In many plants, the darker color indicates higher levels of anti-oxidants.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER™ issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.