Grains are the “missing link” in the sustainable food chain, according to Megan Browning, an intern with the Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based organization that works with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. While a growing number of chefs and home cooks go out of their way to purchase local and sustainable produce, meat, fish, and dairy products, relatively few of us buy grains directly from farmers or know where or how they’re produced.
The modern wheat and other grains that are commercially available are bred to produce a maximum yield, using fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and intensive irrigation. Until recently, it’s been difficult to find locally produced wheat and grains raised from indigenous varieties of seeds. Fortunately, a small number of Massachusetts farmers, brewers, distillers and chefs are growing, using, and teaching us how to appreciate heritage grains.
The Chefs Collaborative showcased some of the innovative chefs and food producers working with local and heritage grains at a recent workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. I was amazed to learn how much is going on with heritage grains right here in Massachusetts and delighted to taste how much flavor is in these grains.
Ancient forms of wheat are endangered, according to Eli Rogosa, founder of Heritage Grain Conservancy is an organic farmer, seed saver and artisan baker based in Western Mass. Rogosa worked with the Israeli Genebank to collect rare, ancient Israeli seeds, and now makes bread, matzoh and flatbreads from these ancient grains that she grows, such as einkorn and emmer.
“The ancient varieties are more resilient and resistant to changes in climate,” Rogosa says. “And heritage grains have been proven to cause less celiac disease than modern wheat.”
Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass, started growing local grain for the food market a few years ago. The challenge to being a grain farmer in Massachusetts is not growing it, it’s selling it. “The commodity price for grain is 16 cents a pound,” farmer Jacob L’Etoile says, “but my land cost alone is 20 cents a pound.”
Liz L’Etoile, Jacob’s sister-in-law, is responsible for marketing and sales. The local grains are more expensive than the commodity products, but they are superior quality. Four Star uses a stone mill and hand packs fresh to order. L’Etoile delivers the products herself, which enables her to get feedback directly from chefs and build strong customer relationships.
Boston-based food writer, Maria Speck, is a Four Star customer. “Whole grains have superior flavor and texture,” says Speck, author of the award-winning cookbook, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. (See my review in The PescoVegetarian Times.) For example, “Kamut has a butteriness and whole oats are naturally sweet.” She encourages chefs to build their meals around whole grains and just use meat and fish as an accent on the plate “for the sake of our health and our planet.”
Heritage grains are not just showing up in the food we eat in Massachusetts, but in the alcoholic beverages we drink. Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt, in Hadley, Mass, owns a small malt house (the only one in the region), and buys grain from Heritage Wheat and Four Star. “You can’t make beer from hops,” Stanley explains, “You have to malt it.” Malt is grain that has been steeped, sprouted and then “killed.” Stanley is able to customize the malt for the brewers’ needs.
Stanley produces malt for Bryan Greenhagen, owner of the Mystic Brewery, in Chelsea, Mass. “We’re lucky to have someone local to malt the grain,” Greenhagen says. He likes to use grains that have “actual character.” He is also cultivating his own yeast from local ingredients.
Dave Willis, of Bully Boy Distillers in Boston, Mass., produces organic vodka using winter red wheat from Aurora Mills and Farm in Maine. “When you distill wheat, it has a fruity, sweet quality,” Willis explains. Bully Boy produces also produces whiskey and rum.
While we’re on the subject of spirits, Ben Groppe, of the Hungry Mother, in Cambridge, Mass., who produced a Hominy Stew with co-owner/chef Rachel Miller Munzer mentioned that the heritage corn they buy from Anson Mills in South Carolina was grown from seed found [by owner Glenn Roberts] in a bootlegger’s field! Apparently, the bootleggers were good at preserving more than just our nation’s alcohol heritage.
I wasn’t able to sample all of the heritage grain foods and beverages on offer at the workshop, but I particularly enjoyed the financiers (French Brown-Butter, Almond, & Einkorn Cakes in Rum Syrup) prepared by Chez Nous Bistro co-owner/pastry chef Rachel Portnoy, in Lee, Mass. Portnoy had never baked with whole grain products until she met Rogosa recently, but she’s in the process of taking wheat out of her kitchen. “Einkorn is low gluten and delicious!” Portnoy says. “It’s perfect for baking.” Since the weight is different, Portnoy is recalculating her recipes to adjust, but she’s pleased with the results. Judging by the taste of those rich, satisfying financiers, I’d say she’s found the missing link.