With the growing number of people affected by Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, many people are starting to pay more attention to grain. While bread is maybe the most quintessential of foods, and in biblical terminology the word “bread” can actually mean “food,” it is easy to forget about the diversity of grains out there that can be made into it.
Grains tend to be grown on large acreage and usually require extensive equipment to produce, so most home gardeners never have the satisfaction of growing grains and don’t know much about them. The grains that make up the vast majority of the food we consume are hybrid, industrial and increasingly genetically modified strains that require significant amounts of herbicide, pesticide and fungicides to yield. Hence, ancient heritage grains are exciting for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, some of them, like einkorn, may be more digestible to folks with gluten sensitivities. For another, the implications of ancient grains for sustainable cultivation and diversity of food sources is significant. Likewise, the nuances of flavor and texture can allow for fresh and delicious baking projects.
According to food anthropologist and heritage grain researcher Eli Rogosa, “Landrace grains (grains that have adapted over time to the local environment) have higher nutrition, richer flavor and more robust resilience under climate change” than industrial hybrids. Rogosa just released her new book, Restoring Heritage Grains, available online.
Closer to home, one Jewish farmer in the Baltimore region is combining his love of organic farming with a unique distribution plan to get more heritage grains and flours in the hands of local consumers.
Ian Hertzmark of Migrash Farm is farming a 28-acre plot just outside the city limits of Baltimore. His farm plan calls for different types of heritage grains, which he harvests the old-fashioned way: by hand.
Hertzmark “stooks” his grains—that is, he employs the ancient skill of sheaving and orienting them in an upright stack such that the grains can dry off the ground. He uses scythes (long handle) and sickles (short handle) for harvesting and practices ancient techniques of threshing (separating the grain from the plant), winnowing (separating grain from chaff) and seed cleaning before grinding them with a low-temperature, low-speed stone mill.
This year Hertzmark is trying emmer and spelt, as well as artisanal bread wheat varieties like Red Fife, turkey red and banatka. While the quantities he grows are currently small, this allows him to accomplish his threshing and winnowing with small-scale machinery and hands-on work parties. The result: some very special flour.
Hertzmark plans to use the CSA model to distribute locally sourced organic flours. Called Kehilah Kemach (“flour community” in Hebrew), the idea is for customers to sign up for a seasonal “share” and receive five or ten pounds of locally sourced, organically grown flour every two weeks.
Hertzmark’s second line is called Handmade Grains. This line will be sold retail in two- and five-pound portions and focus on whole heirloom grains with special attention to locally bred or adapted varieties. Handmade Grains will include ancient wheat varieties and dried heirloom soup beans like Jacob’s cattle. Next season he plans to grow lentils, millet, rye, landrace rice, oats, garbanzos and fava beans as well. Handmade Grains’ first batches of product are slated to be available just before Rosh Hashanah 2016.
Top photo: Ian Hertzmark works in the fields at Migrash Farm.