'Heritage grains' return as tasty alternatives, and the trend is sprouting here

"Profoundly herbaceous. Nutty fresh. Deep toasty caramel notes."

Would you guess this is the vocabulary of a professional grain taster, sitting down every day -- as does Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, specialty producers -- to somewhere between six and 30 spoonsful of plain boiled heritage grains? The variety described is Red Fife, America's preferred bread flour in the 19th century, now being revived.

Identifying flavor, aroma and "finish" not in wine but in wheat may be a new thought, since local heritage grain has just stepped on stage in Western Pennsylvania. Most of us haven't tasted much of it.

We are about to have a chance to relearn what the collective American palate once knew about our grain heritage when grain was chosen for flavor, grown close to home and ground fresh.

"It's taken for granted in Europe that grain has terroir, reflects the soil and climate in which it grows," says Mr. Roberts. "People have grain mills on their countertops. They search the countryside for farmers with the best-tasting grains."

Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C. (ansonmills.com) is fabled among chefs and food enthusiasts who revel in the tastes and textures of its Southern "antebellum" grains, brought by Mr. Roberts from the verge of extinction. He discovered some of the plants that were the source of the once-beloved Dixie flours and corn meals unrecognized by landowners, in abandoned fields and back gardens.

Sources of Organic and Specialty Grains

• All-local, all-organic Clarion River Organics, Sligo: Find it at farm markets, in CSA boxes and at Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District. Nathan Holmes, co-founder of the four-year old consortium, works with mostly Amish organic farmers.

Selling grain began with spelt grown by Amish grower Aaron Schwartz. Cued by Nigel Tudor, Mr. Schwartz connected with Amish all-organic miller Monroe Stutzman in Ohio. Mr. Schwartz's spelt, a cover crop, when ground into flour, became a cash crop. Mr. Holmes now sells thousands of pounds of the consortium's whole-wheat flour and whole-grain spelt flour and spelt crackers, graham flour and graham crackers. Western Pennsylvania grain is seasonal: Clarion has no more whole-wheat flour until the red winter wheat is harvested this fall, but rolled oats, spelt and whole-wheat bread are sold at the Pittsburgh Public Market and farm markets (clarionriverorganics.com).

• Some-local, all-organic Frankferd Farms: Order online or buy at the Saxonburg store and other outlets. This $5-million, certified-organic farm and flour mill has been in the grain business for 30 years. Frankferd grows a portion of the many grains it sells. Owner T. Lyle Ferderber says, "Western Pennsylvania is behind the New England curve of heritage grain, but it's coming. Somebody, like Nigel, has to stick his neck out. We need awareness, more processors, and then we need a bakery." Get a feel for prices in the catalog at frankferd.com.

• Food markets: You will find exotic grain selections, some organic, at Whole Foods Market, East End Co-Op and Giant Eagle Market District. The Settlers Ridge Market District has done its homework with "all natural" whole-wheat, graham, spelt, amaranth, flax, buckwheat, millet, kamut, rye, corn, barley and much more from Bob's Mill, Milwaukie, Ore. (bobsredmill.com).

The new grain specialists are also inspired by the "ancient" hard-hulled varieties, such as spelt, emmer and einkorn, staffs of life cited in the Bible.

If this sounds like a precious effort for a boutique market, consider the role grain plays in what we grow and what we eat.

For Chef Dan Barber, the James Beard Foundation's top chef in America in 2009 (and who says he feels like his head is in a wheat field right now because he is writing a book about this nation's relationship to its food), "It all comes down to grain.

"Eighty percent of agricultural production is devoted to raising grain to feed us or animals. We'll never achieve sustainability if we limit our focus to the produce and proteins. They represent a tiny fraction of the farming landscape."

The executive chef of the renowned restaurants Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., loads so many local grains into his menus he is hard pressed to remember if it was New York State emmer bread or a farro dish that recently tickled the palates of President Obama and his family.

Any way you look at it, a local food supply lacking its staples has a big hole in it.

Modest resurgences of organic heritage grain are being fueled by pioneers across the country -- Vermont, New York, Washington state, the Carolinas.

We can now add an outpost of our own.

Weatherbury Farm near Avella, Washingon County, was named for Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd." These idyllic acres might feel like a lonely spot on the globe to organic farmer Nigel Tudor -- if the energetic 30-year-old had time for introspection.

Mr. Tudor for now will be the only Western Pennsylvania grower not only to grow and harvest certified organic specialty grains but also to mill them on the farm. This fall Weatherbury will begin selling its "estate" line of flours and whole grains. The farmstead wheat, rye, corn, spelt and farro products will have the milling date stamped on the bag.

Mr. Tudor, with his parents Marcy and Dale, has retooled the 102-acre family farm acquired in 1986 when the family moved from Ross.

The family will continue to sell grass-fed beef and lamb and to host B&B farm "hay-vacations," but their passionate intent is to join the few who grow organic heritage grains and make money at it.

The Tudors face the challenges that all today's heritage grain growers do. The composed and good-humored Mr. Tudor cites the little things -- deer, crows and mice that prefer the heritage organic crop over a neighbor's conventional ones. Then there are the big obstacles: desperate shortage of seeds, lack of harvesting and processing equipment, undeveloped markets and barely nascent consumer awareness.

About 50 years ago the grain culture changed in America: Small acreages of organic grain faded away, along with the local flour mills that served them. Everything flowed to the Midwest, where conglomerates bred grain for yield and super-consistency. This commodity product could be shipped anywhere to bake the same bread in anybody's kitchen or bakery.

Seed stock for the old-time varieties dwindled, and equipment sized to maneuver nimbly in small fields fell into disuse.

Fast-backward 135 years to Nigel Tudor's acres and you find that Avella, like most communities, had its own flour mill (Avella's operated until 1943).

The farm's original granary still stands. Mr. Tudor came upon a report of a "farm visiting committee" dated 1876 (the era of Hardy's novel), attesting to the high quality of wheat growing in the vicinity's top-soil-rich fields. The yields-per-acre noted would be considered breathtaking today.

Weatherbury, with 30 acres in grain, is in its third year producing heirloom varieties and conducting field trials for them. Mr. Tudor has spent many a night online corralling vintage equipment. New machines for small-scale grain producers are not yet being manufactured in the United States -- unlike in Europe.

He draws on his skills as an architectural blacksmith to craft parts and restore to life a sprawling collection of contraptions with noisy belts, rusting flywheels and shuddering screens and blowers. He assembled a new oat roller that looks like a sewing machine. His pride and joy arrived from Austria: a new $10,000 sophisticated grain mill, standing taller than he is, and encased in gleaming pale wood.

The pre-1960 wheat varietals, now the subject of search and rescue by growers like Mr. Tudor, are hardy plants that previous generations selected for robust health and flavor -- long before American flour became a commoditized product. Their names reflect places and people. Chef Barber says it was primarily women whose palates did the choosing.

Nigel Tudor is growing Maxine hard red wheat, heritage Red Fife (named for its rescuer, Canadian John Fife), North Dakota Common emmer, Frederick soft white wheat, Oberkulmer spelt, Aroostook rye, Buff hulless oats, and Wapsie Valley open-pollinated corn.

The term of art for these varieties is "landrace." That means a local variety of domesticated plant (or animal) species that has developed largely by natural processes. Landrace plants, in contrast to agrobusiness-bred ones, draw on a rich gene pool to adapt to climate stresses, soil types and people's preferences. "Landrace is all about genetic biodiversity," Mr. Roberts of Anson Mills says. "Diversity is what you celebrate."

Why is Nigel Tudor betting the farm -- ahead of local lip-smacking for specialty grains?

"I sort of backed into it," Mr. Tudor says. "We bought a kitchen grain mill. I disliked the obscene price of buying whole grain for it. Since we needed hay for winter bedding, I decided I could grow better grain in the process."

Mr. Tudor is a man used to finding out what he needs to know. He connected with Elizabeth Dyck, Ph.D., of New York State, organic researcher for 25 years and one of this country's foremost heritage grain experts.

Ms. Dyck -- a farmer herself, with sun-burnished skin, Minnesota T-shirt and wheat-colored hair pinned any which way on top of her head -- deploys a modest manner and a musical voice in what she terms a "hell for leather" campaign to get these landrace grains growing again on small organic farms across the nation.

She helps farmers grow high-quality grain with consistent gluten content, water absorption and texture. Excessive variation in any of these poses problems for bakers. Her support includes helping growers establish themselves with restaurants, bakers, distillers and grain processors.

She founded the Organic Growers' Research and Information-Sharing Network and through it mentors farmers from New England to Washington, Canada and Kenya. She has projects afoot with Penn State and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to boost the infrastructure here and even fold Pennsylvania-grown grain into an already appreciative New York City market. She will bring her expertise to a tasting of Pennsylvania heritage grain here sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh and PASA.

Ms. Dyck and Mr. Tudor are conducting field trials at the Avella farm. She spoke to a small group at a July field day there, sponsored by PASA: "Specialty Wheats -- Are Heritage and Ancient Grains Right for Your Farm?"

You might ask why we should love emmer, a Russian grain brought to the American Midwest two centuries ago by German immigrants. "For one thing," suggests Ms. Dyck, "it makes incredible pasta." What about einkorn, oldest and rarest of the ancients, dating to the Fertile Crescent? "Einkorn flour is just delicious and makes fabulous yeast bread. The flour has a yellow cast because of the lutein, an antioxidant thought to have health potential. Both emmer and einkorn are busting out as trend grains in Europe."

Spelt? With its delicate nutty flavor and easy swap-ability in baking, spelt is a good place for home bakers to start. Maxine wheat? "Fragrant, sweet and toasty," said field-day participants of Mr. Tudor's own perfectly risen whole-wheat loaves.

But seeds to grow these flavorful grains are not easy to come by.

Ms. Dyck: "I am moving heaven and earth to develop seed supply and seed buying clubs, so that farmers will have several thriving varieties of each grain to choose from."

Not that there aren't plenty of obstacles. But Ms. Dyck has faith in Nigel Tudor:

"He has started small. He is very innovative and enamored of research. He's way ahead on the issues. He is in the forefront with einkorn -- you can't buy seed for it."

In Austria Mr. Tudor "stumbled on a small bag of einkorn seeds, not in best shape." He coaxed the dried-out stash into a few plants, harvested those seeds, and now has a thriving plot, right outside the back door, where he can watch it.

"I prize his collaboration," Ms. Dyck says.

From these little seeds, great things are growing.

Says Glen Roberts: "Elizabeth's M.O. is to go someplace something is not, and create it. This year at a field day there are a handful of people, saying 'What?' And next year there will be a few hundred. She is a results person. She compels people to win."

Crepes With Ricotta

PG tested

Take Kim Boyces' advice: "These crepes are a bit thicker than others, as they're made with the unusual addition of fresh ricotta. Be careful not to stir the ricotta too much, as the cheese creates little pockets in the batter that melt and toast as you cook the crepes. Spelt flour adds flavor and a nuttiness that pairs well with the mild creaminess of the fresh cheese. Choose a ricotta made from whole milk without any thickening stabilizers. ... These are a terrific centerpiece for a meal."

-- Virginia Phillips

  • Butter for the pan
  • 1 cup whole milk, plus additional for thinning, if necessary
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup spelt flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • To finish
  • 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

In the order listed, measure all the ingredients except the ricotta into a blender jar or a narrow vessel with high sides that will accommodate an immersion blender.

Blend the batter until smooth and free of clumps, cover, and leave to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Use a spoon to stir the crepe batter together to incorporate any of the liquid that may have separated. The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream. If it's thicker than that, stir in a few tablespoons of milk before adding the ricotta. Stir in the ricotta just until combined, taking care to leaves lumps of cheese flecked throughout. (Keep in mind that the batter will be stirred many more times during the griddling.)

Heat an 8-inch cast-iron or nonstick pan over medium-high heat until a splash of water sizzles when it hits the pan. Rub the pan with butter. Hold the pan at an angle so that the handle is close to your body and tilted up, with the edge across from the handle tilted down toward the flame.

Using a 2-ounce ladle or 1/4-cup measuring cup, scoop up some batter. Pour the batter just off-center in the pan and quickly swirl it around, aiming for one circular motion that creates a thin, even spread of batter in the pan. Do not add more batter to make up for empty space.

Cook the crepe for about 1 minute, until the batter begins to bubble and the edges begin to brown. Slide a metal spatula or spoon along the edge to loosen the crepe, pinch the edge, and flip the crepe over in one motion. When the crepe is flipped, the ricotta will create small mounds in the crepe. Cook for another 45 seconds, or until the crepes are speckled brown and crisp around the edges. Remove to a plate, with the pretty side facing up, and serve.

If you make the crepes in advance, lay them individually on a baking sheet; before serving, toast them in a 400-degree oven for 5 or 6 minutes until they are warm, tender in the middle, and crisp on the edges. They can also be warmed individually in a pan. Crepes can also be frozen, wrapped tightly in plastic, with parchment between each crepe.

Makes 14.

-- "Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours" by Kim Boyce (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2010, $29.95)

Zucchini Bread

PG tested

Kim Boyce says: "Rye flour is a lot subtler than you might think, and its malt flavor pairs well with fresh herbs, in this case basil and mint. Grated zucchini is stirred into the batter for moisture and substance, as well as color. I especially like a slice with a nub of melted butter and a pot of mint tea."

  • Butter for the pan
  • 2 tablespoons basil, about 12 medium leaves
  • 1 tablespoon mint, about 8 medium leaves
Wet mix
  • 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 pound zucchini (about 2 medium)
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 eggs
Dry mix
  • 1 cup rye flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a standard bread loaf pan.

Pick the basil and mint leaves from their stems, roughly chop the leaves, and reserve. Melt the butter. Add the herbs to the butter to infuse their flavor while the other ingredients are being prepared.

Slice the ends off the zucchini. Grate the whole zucchini on the largest holes of a box grater into a large mixing bowl. Add the yogurt and eggs to the bowl and whisk thoroughly.

Sift the dry ingredients into another large mixing bowl, pouring back any bits of grain or other ingredients that may remain in the sifter. Scrape the butter with herbs into the zucchini mixture and stir together.

Pour the zucchini mixture into the dry ingredients, gently folding until just combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The bread should be dark golden-brown and spring back when lightly touched; a skewer inserted into the center should come out clean.

Remove the bread from the oven and cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then, invert the bread out of the pan and cool on a baking rack. The bread should be eaten at room temperature.

Wrapped tightly in plastic, it can be kept up to 3 days, even getting better the next day after the flavors have some time to meld together.

Makes 1 loaf.

-- "Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours" by Kim Boyce (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2010, $29.95)

Drop Biscuits with Strawberries and Cream

PG tested

If you think whole-wheat biscuits might be heavy, try these. They come together in 5 minutes and are ready for peaches and all kinds of berries.

-- Virginia Phillips

  • Butter for the baking sheet
For the biscuits
  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup cold heavy cream
To finish
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar for dusting
  • 1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cup cold heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup creme fraiche (optional)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Rub a baking sheet lightly with butter.

In a large bowl, sift together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt, pouring back into the bowl any ingredients that may remain in the sifter.

Pour in the cream and, using a fork or your hands, stir until the dough just begins to come together. The dough will be very shaggy; do not overmix.

Pile the dough into 6 mounds, leaving 4 inches between them. Use your hands to tuck in the rough pieces of the dough.

Sprinkle the biscuits with the remaining 11/2 teaspoons of sugar.

Bake the biscuits for 34 to 40 minutes, rotating the sheet once halfway through, until they begin to color on the top.

While the biscuits are baking, place the berries in a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Allow them to macerate, uncovered at room temperature, for about 30 minutes, or until the biscuits are done. Meanwhile, whip the remaining cup of cream (combined with creme fraiche, if desired -- see sidebar) into soft peaks that barely hold their shape, and chill.

When the biscuits are out of the oven, fill 6 bowls with cream and berries, then nestle a warm biscuit alongside.

Serves 6.

-- "Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours" by Kim Boyce (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2010, $29.95)

Whipped cream

Whipped cream should always be softly whipped, without distinct peaks, and never cracked or broken. One way to achieve this is to add creme fraiche to the whipping cream, usually a third of the amount as there is cream. Creme fraiche gives a little tang while providing body and keeping the cream from overwhipping. It takes longer to whip, and the resulting cream has more gloss, is creamier than plain whipped cream, and spoons softly.

-- Kim Boyce


Anson Mills' Glenn Roberts: "When a chef decides local organic heirloom grain is something that has to be done. And that chef will be the next James Beard chef.

"There were guffaws and jeers when Zingerman's Alex Young started growing wheat on his farm in Ann Arbor. He won a Beard last year. Chef Sean Brock, with McCrady's and Husk in Charleston [S.C.], does field trials of heritage grains. He's got them tattooed on his arm. He won the Beard in 2010.

Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York is all about local landrace grains. He was top Beard chef in the nation in 2009. Chad Robertson, regional grain advocate, of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, was Beard pastry chef, 2008."


• Chefs: Sam DiBattista, re-opening Vivo in a new Sewickley location, likes wheatberries (whole wheat kernels), simply steamed with savory dishes. Justin Severino plans spelt pasta for his restaurant, Cure, opening in Lawrenceville this fall. Trevett Hooper, re-opening Legume in its new Oakland location, makes a Clarion River spelt risotto and has asked Clarion to mill spelt berries into cream of spelt, like cream of wheat. Kevin Hunninen at Park Bruges in Highland Park and Stephen Felder at Stagioni in Bloomfield like the freshness of the Clarion River farro for farrottos, which are flavored many ways and made like risotto.

While chefs think in pounds, bakers and distillers think pallets.

• Bakers: Mediterra Bakehouse uses up to 1,000 pounds a week of custom-ground open-pollinated organic cornmeal from Monroe Stutzman's Ohio mill. Owner Nick Ambeliotis says, "We use it to coat the bottom of every single loaf we bake." Genetically modified (GMO) corn is not an option for Mediterra, even if the Stutzman cornmeal "costs three times as much as the commodity product. We absolutely love his products." The bakery uses the mill's spelt, buckwheat, rye, oats and millet for topping various loaves. "We do buy some of his wheat flour but only for our specialty loaf, Heartland Grains. We love using really, really fresh fragrant grains that keep more of the nutrients." Sarah Kelvy Lewis, former baker at the East End Co-Op, now baker/owner of tiny Sustenance Rustic Craft Bakers in the Pittsburgh Public Market, uses lots of exotic grains and looks forward to incorporating local ones.

• Booze: Eric Meyer and his father Mark Meyer, owners of Wigle Whiskey (wiglewhiskey.com) on Smallman Street in the Strip District, plan to launch aged and unaged rye and wheat whiskeys this fall. With 800 pounds of organic grain in every barrel of whiskey, they'll be scouring Pennsylvania and neighboring states for suppliers. The Meyers plan to buy Nigel Tudor's rye. And Sprague Farm & Brew Works in Venango, Crawford County, just harvested malting barley for making an "estate beer."


Another Beard winner is the guide to less familiar grains: Pastry chef Kim Boyce's "Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours," a 2011 James Beard award-winner, offers a straight shot to the lovely flavors of grains and grinds we don't know very well. These expertly tested, supportive recipes are organized by grain type. They reward with unfussy but stellar results -- and throw in good pastry chef tricks, too.

I've made the following more than once -- they were that good: Rustic Rhubarb Tarts with Rhubarb Compote; Whole-Wheat Drop Biscuit shortcakes; Crepes with Ricotta. The book was published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang in 2010 and retails for $29.95.

Virginia Phillips: Vredpath@aol.com .


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