Is there more to wheat than the uniformly ground white variety? And what can we learn from the grain-growing practices of the past? These are some of the questions propelling a new movement toward “heritage grains” or the flavorful, hardy, and eco-friendly local grains that were a mainstay before the industrial revolution.
The heritage grain movement is a growing cause in California, where the climate is uniquely suited to growing grains. In fact, at one time, California was a leader in grain production, but by in the early 20th century, those crops were replaced by higher-value crops such as orchards and vineyards. Only now, as more people think about the quality of food they eat and where that food comes from, are farmers and bakers turning to California’s “original” grain crops that are naturally drought tolerant and low in gluten.
We had a chance to learn more about the heritage grains movement at a recent discussion at The Taste festival in Los Angeles, with Southern California grain farmer Alex Weiser, Pasadena-based grain miller Nan Kohler, and Los Angeles pastry chef Roxana Jullapat.
Weiser is part of a group known as the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project that includes his farm as well as a coalition of local farmers, bakers, and food advocates looking for more sustainable and eco-friendly crops. Weiser said that the general farm perception of growing grains is that it’s a “loss leader” – good for the soil, but bad for a farmer’s bottom line. But he was drawn to the movement when considering the larger benefits of returning to artisanal growing practices. “It makes our farm more holistic,” said Weiser. “I saw a lot of opportunity.”
He added that the movement is growing because the results speak for themselves – Sonora and Red Fife wheat, Abruzzi rye, French black oats, Atlas barley… These grains are all non-GMO, pre-industrial revolution varieties with distinctive tastes and flavors all their own that especially appeal to today’s food connoisseurs and locavores.
Kohler, who mills local grains at her Pasadena storefront Grist and Toll, said that she began milling her own flour because as a baker, she was drawn to more interesting grains and wanted a better product. But when she realized that the movement toward richer and more diverse grains was a “rage against that big agricultural machine,” she began to feel that she had a role and responsibility to help change public perception that “wheat should be white.”
“My mission changed from ‘I want cool flour’ to ‘We’re in a dogfight for diversity,'” said Kohler.
Jullapat noted that the artisan grains yield a product that is second to none, and yet they require special attention and understanding. “You can’t be a half-assed baker to work with these grains,” she said. Unlike working with mass-produced flours that are uniformly white and predictable, these flours represent “a live product that is unique to a moment in time,” she said, much like how berries at the farmers’ market taste different at the beginning versus the end of the summer.
Kohler added that in the past, home cooks accepted these product variations as part of the nature of food. “You learned to work with what is available to you,” she said.
But don’t get caught into thinking that this is a backward movement, she added. “We’re fighting the notion of ‘Isn’t that cute’ or ‘old-fashioned,’ but it’s absolutely cutting-edge,” Kohler said. “This is a game-changer for all of us.”
Curious? You can learn more at the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project web site. If you want to go the extra step of supporting them, visit their GoFundMe page, where they’re trying to raise $100,000 for specialized equipment and more seeds.
Additionally, if you think you might want to try some heritage grains, stop by Grist and Toll (they’re open Wednesday to Saturday) in Pasadena. And don’t think you’ll be left out there on your own – they have plenty of baking tips on their web site, and they’re always happy to answer questions on-site.
Side note: To emphasize the eco-friendly nature of heritage grain farming, Weiser brought along drinking straws made from – what else? – straw. It’s a great option, considering the wastefulness of plastic straws in the environment, plus it allows the farmer to use every part of the grain, he said. Look for those “real straws” to make an appearance at select restaurants in Los Angeles in the next few months.