Wheat is the pillar of civilisation, theorised by some to have made us docile to except the yoke of civilisation. It is a book of the Holocene.
The story of us as a people becoming sedentary civilisations. In this book there are chapters, which closely follow certain landraces and their migrations. The heritage wheat community which is growing by the day is made out of groups of individuals committed to turn the tables on the green revolution, on the idea that increasing yields was a good idea, the idea that losing ten thousand years of grain selection and story can be healthy for us. There is also much confusion because it is a comeback movement.
To begin with we must understand that heritage wheat was grown in a completely different context, meaning that landrace preservation, social identification and typical foods were part and parcel of a given culture. There is a depth of things we lost. From viewing the grain mother as an entity in the field, to selecting wheat heads for the next harvest. Modern approaches are important because of the fragile place traditional wheat varieties hold, but they are also threatening to heritage wheat, the combine harvester as one example means that however pure a landrace is, by default it must mix with other varieties at harvest, making it impossible to continue the traditional cultivation of single varieties, in fact most landraces are now populations (more than one single variety) because we stopped most of the mechanisms that were practiced in the field, at the harvest and at sowing. Some modern approaches say that our best option is to grow populations of traditional wheats instead, I disagree.
I think that traditional wheat is one of the most important rural mechanisms we had for the last ten thousand years, that fact that we chose to grow each variety on its own, to mill it on its own, and only then to possibly mix them into different foods is important. The fact that neighbouring areas would stick by their different wheat almost as markers as who they are as people, by creating a different bread or typical plates to their neighbours is also important, in fact I think there is much that is misunderstood of the role wheat has on our perception of the world. I even go as far to say that grass in general and wheat in particular have this mechanism that it plays on our awareness so we will cultivate it and propagate it, in the way that grass made animals into herds so it will be cut down every year and cleared away from forest, wheat has made us clear most of the world’s surface so we will grow it everywhere.
Landraces are local stories, in a book of larger chapters which are controlled by families, durum is the story of the domestication of the southern part of the Fertile Crescent, and later the Mediterranean basin, a story that started in Palestine of Israel if you wish, and ended up in Italy, yet it also covers northern African countries and has a whole dedicated entry in Ethiopia. Bread wheats tell another story and another migration route into Europe from Turkey.
Modern approach to heritage wheat is complicated, in fact we are now at a cross road, the people who brought heritage wheat back into modern farming were almost all small growers, even though further east traditional and modern are still woven hand in hand, n most of the western world, heritage wheat is at a conflict with modern farming. We must learn new methods, first for landrace selection, for seed saving, possibly optical selectors, we need to find modern ways to establish older methods of growing. In the same way we also need to learn to work with flour and wheat to create local foods. The black durum breads of southern Italy, or Durum wheat dumplings like Kibbeh, pasta even are all very dependant on certain landraces, never mind that taste is very important to local area identity.
Currently the commercial world of mills and farmers is dependant on the work of small growers, people who have smuggled grain privately and have grown it on their own, we must have new rules that help us save the remaining landraces, and allow us to introduce them back into modern farming, we also need to learn quickly how to grow this land save their purity better. Maybe the best practice on some level is to introduce smaller mills again, to grow landrace wheat directly for one own use as a bakery, or even pasta maker. The joy of becoming a small grower, the adventure of looking for the lost landraces, meeting people from other lands and exchanging seeds, growing those in a new place and seeing how they adapt is endless. I think many more people should be engaged in it. We need everyone on board. We need to learn to eat Emmer again as part of our traditional wheat diet, first because it is much more digestible, and second because it helps with some of the affect that traditional wheat has on our well being. When we work with population wheat we need to learn to match bread wheats toghether, and think about how those mill, not just throw anything together, so deciding on end foods before we start making a new population is a good idea. We need to think about new machinery that helps us harvest, and a new type of farming that allows strands of wheat to be grown amidst other crops, between orchards and plantations even, because mono cultures are degrading to whole areas.
We have been working with growers (mainly in Italy) and mills (Italy and the UK) to try and make aspect of this happen, our deepest joy though is in the field, growing and experimenting, making new foods or learning about traditional ones, the feeling of having your kitchen open to the field, and cooking pasta or bread while the grain is growing behind the open door is unimaginable, seeing the wheats grow that you brought from another country, sharing those with small growers who in turn give you their secret seeds, and becoming part of a world wide community of friends who you can visit anywhere you go, sit down and talk food, learn about farming, traditional baking is maybe one of the most enjoyable aspects of becoming a grain pirate. We are a small network of smugglers if you want, as seed is very controlled, I laugh how much of modern “heritage wheat” that is cultivated depends on this family of people, on their passion. Some of us have become obsessed, the call of a new landrace we have not tried, a taste we can give our bread (or in my case pasta). I also love learning of strings of migrations, I am currently looking at the story of Sarragolla (an Italian landrace of Khorseanm wheat) learning that the same name exits still in Turkey, and even in Lebanon. The grain they cultivate under the same name looks similar, and so I wonder if this was a migration route for Khoresan wheat, through Turkey, Bulgaria to Italy (the Italian landrace is said to have been brought by Bulgarian people).
There is much work to do, in fact it is endless, but fortunately there are many now doing it, and modern farming is also awakening to the fact, first that is a lot of money to be made because everyone wants the taste and health benefits of traditional wheats, and second because it is like discovering the who0le world of food we had and lost, from roman sausages made with emmer, to Kibbeh, piled with thousand pasta dishes, and sourdough breads, Lagana and chapatis and we must not forget pizza, If you have land you must grow heritage wheat because it will change everything. If you do not know where to get seed or how to start, or better still if you have some old seed and want to exchange or tell us your story get in touch.