Think You Know Wheat? Think Again
The flavor, texture, and overall complexity of heirloom wheat flours are staggering compared to conventional ones. Why aren't we eating more local varieties?
"If we care so much about where our meat, produce, and wine comes from, why not with our wheat flour?"
Caroline Styne of The Lucques Group in Los Angeles posed this question to a small crowd of writers, pastry chefs, and bakers that have all eagerly gathered on a Monday afternoon to taste six different wheat varieties—earthy Patwin, chewy Senatori Cappelli, nutty Desert King, vegetal Red Fife, muddy Frassinetto, and buttery Edison—through assorted rustic breads, handmade pastas, and flatbreads. They were all prepared the same way and presented next to a normal foodservice-quality semolina pasta.
The differences in flavor, texture, depth, and overall complexity—especially when combined with ingredients like butter, roasted chicken stock, sage, and Perigord truffle—were staggering. Attendees were awestruck up and down the table, asking each other and themselves: Where have these crazy-tasting grains been all our lives?
The workshop, titled "Moving Past Industrial Wheat Toward a California Artisan Grain Economy," was a collaboration between Suzanne Goin's Larder Baking Company and Community Grains, an Oakland-based grain company that is on a mission—as the workshop's name indicates—to restore a local grain economy built on transparency, good farming, and what the founder, Bob Klein, describes as "true whole grain."
The wild-fermented breads for the afternoon were baked by Larder's head baker, Nathan Dakdouk. Despite the difficulty that came with working with heirloom wheats that tend to be lower in gluten than conventional wheat, his menu included baguettes, pain d'epi, croissants, and a savory, thick-crusted blueberry bread, all made using organic whole-grain flours sourced from various farmers in northern California.
The workshop's organizers hoped that the event would spark conversations about a number of problems: How do we make these wheats an everyday food, yet still pay the farmer a living wage? More importantly, how can we address the lack of transparency and lax regulations on what constitutes a whole-grain flour? For example, the way the rules are right now, the FDA allows up to 10 percent of the bran in whole grain flour to be sifted out.
Klein touched on problems that arise from harvesting millions and millions of pounds of wheat flour and trusting big companies that tout "whole grain" products.
"How do you know what is actually in your wheat?" Klein asked. "Better yet, how do you verify it?"
Klein hired a biotech firm to analyze the bran content of various flours and found that some of them were not, in fact, completely whole wheat. He also discovered that soil health directly affected the flavor and texture of milled wheat. "It makes total sense," Klein said. "If great soil makes for a great heirloom tomato, why not for wheat?"
Fritz Durst, a Sacramento-based grain farmer who recently switched from conventional farming to organic, was also present at the workshop. "I was doing everything by the rule book of conventional farming, but my organic-farming neighbor kept producing more hay than me, year after year," he said. "One day I sat down with the guy and he opened my eyes on what goes on in soil. He told me, plain and simple, 'Just stop killing what you already have in your soil.'" Durst claimed that after implementing organic farming techniques, soil erosion dramatically decreased on his property, and his wheat yield has never been better, despite California's current drought.
At the end of the workshop, the consensus was that making heirloom wheats accessible depends on the education of consumers and let them know how much tastier these heirloom wheats can be. It is up to them to demand wheat transparency from companies and force the FDA to tighten its current loophole-laden rules with the "whole grain" label. Currently, Community Grains has a search bar on its home page where you can enter the batch number of any of their products and trace the seed, farm, and mill, and learn more about the wheat variety.
"We just need to make sure that it doesn't fall on our bakers and consumers as an extra cost for bread and pasta," Klein said. "And also, think of the farmers."