RENDEZVOUS WITH ROUSSEAU | Culinary Adventures in the Aesthetics of Time and Space | 7-Wheat Be Wary

Wheat in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland is local! The fields of gold are always a pleasant sight to the traveller on the train from Lausanne to Bern, climbing up to the central plateau that stretches Swiss agriculture from Geneva in the west to Schaffhausen in the east.

The sight wasn’t so pleasant three generations ago. The Swiss were in a bad way, food had to be imported, famously by the first sea-going Swiss ship, the Calanda, bringing grain among other products into the country during the 1940s.

The Swiss implemented the Wahlen Plan, which eventually brought the country to the levels of self-sufficiency and food security it now enjoys, a scenario that is almost unique in the world (China and Turkey are also self-sufficient in food). Wheat became an important crop for the Swiss and they want to keep it that way. They are not alone.

Wheat is classified as common (triticum aestivum), einkorn / siyez (triticum monococcum), durum (triticum durum) and spelt (triticum spelta). The main varieties of common wheat are spring and winter, hard and soft, red and white, and these make up the bulk of the wheat harvest. Wheat accounts for just less than a third of the total global cereals crop.

Despite reduced harvests in Canada, the Russian Federation and the USA, total wheat production in 2021 was 769.6 million tonnes, with demand expected to be robust in 2022. Argentina, Australia, Canada, the EU, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, Ukraine and the USA are the major wheat exporters in the world.

Wheat has come a long way from its origins in the land now called Şanlıurfa 12,000 years ago. It began with the sweet grass that carried a single seed in a little ear, a very distinctive species in the mountainous areas of southeastern Turkey that would become known as einkorn in German, siyez in Turkish, triticum monococcum in latin. It continued with emmer, a grass found across the region from northeastern Turkey to the Caucasus into the Levant and down into Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Both grasses were domesticated, einkorn fell out of favour while emmer, triticum diccoccum in latin, thrived at Arukhlo in Georgia and at Çatalhöyük in Turkey 8,000 years ago.

Coincidentally Göbekli Tepe is in Şanlıurfa!

Food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat described what happened. ‘The grain was naked, separating easily from the husk of the glumes. The axis of the ear was stronger, even high winds could not blow a single grain away. Modern wheat had come into being.’

The new wheats — which became known as club wheat, triticum compactum, and common wheat, triticum aestivum and triticum vulgare — were the result of cross-breeding, according to Toussaint-Samat, ‘by chance or design’.

Now there are more than 30,000 varieties of wheat with more on the way. Most are soft wheats (compared to the hard wheats that produce semolina for couscous and pasta).

Wheat has remained an important crop for the Turks. They have brought einkorn back into the picture under the name siyez, continue to develop common wheat and take great delight in the on-going history of their bread-making tradition.

Turkish bakers will even tell you a story, if you ask them nicely, about their patron saint Adam and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In exile Adam met the archangel Gabriel, who taught him the secret of bread making. Adam then swore this secret to his descendants, who carry it today into the everyday bread of the Fertile Crescent countries including Anatolia, the Caucasus and Egypt.

It is probably fair to argue without much contradiction that the bakers of Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey are without comparison when they employ their skills to produce dough that is made into crescent bread, loaf bread, flatbread, ring bread, small bread and into the various types of pastries. Gravitas, quality and tradition epitomise these breads and pastries, which are baked early and consumed fresh throughout the day from homes and local bakeries across the region and throughout Europe where migrants from these countries have settled.

During the Ottoman period the breads and pastries of Anatolia, the Levant and Persia made their way westwards. The techniques became known as Viennoiserie, penetrated western Europe in the late 1800s, and changed the traditional attitudes toward the sourdough bread culture of France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia and Switzerland and the aromatic flatbreads of the Mediterranean countries, which had also begun to infiltrate the outer reaches of Europe.

Back in Anatolia and the Levant, wheat grains were also used to make bulgur, a tradition that goes back more than 10,000 years old and has remained popular, especially in Turkey where bulgar was once known as the ‘senior of the home’. There was a time when every household would boil the whole grains, dry them in the sun, then grind them in a large bulgur mill during an annual community event. Bulgar is now made commercially, fine ground for use in köfte (meatballs) and coarse ground for use in pilaf. Superfine bulgur is almost as fine as flour, and is used to make soup.

The original bread revolution in Anatolia, Assyria, the Caucasus and the Levant was replicated by the Egyptians and the Greeks who changed the tradition from the flat to the round. Then breads came in all shapes and sizes. Not surprisingly when the Romans got in on the act they employed Greek bakers, and also bakers from Gaul, who had learned how to make bread using beer yeast. Wheat flour remained in the ascendancy for a long time.

Austria’s more recent re-imagined version of the bread revolution is now being replicated in Switzerland where modern einkorn, modern spelt and modern wheat are being used to make a range of small breads with high hydration and numerous ingredients (featured in our book Handmade Small Breads).

Vaud has become the breadbasket of Switzerland, with a quarter of the bread grains grown in the arable land across the central plateau. These include modern varieties of wheat descended from old varieties with a fidelity to the ancient genetic material.

Karl-Heinz Camp works in Delley Samen, where he is developing new types of wheat in cooperation with Agroscope, the federal competence centre for agricultural research.

‘It takes about 12-15 years for a crossbreed to turn into a marketable variety from which Swiss bread is made. Of course, the best thing is always when a new variety has gained a foothold in the market. So when the seed multipliers have started to propagate the variety, and after 2-3 years it has arrived on the market or is accepted. That’s what you worked for over 15 years.

Wheat is going to be crucial in sustainable food security systems. Whether it will be common wheat, modern einkorn or modern spelt or combinations of flours is the debate. Common wheat divides opinion among those who live in the countries where it is the dominant crop in the agricultural scheme. The use of herbicides and pesticides, especially glyphosate with its detrimental effect on bee, insect and worm populations, is more than a mere concern. Glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest desiccant on wheat crops. The Pesticide Action Network, among others, wants a total ban on the use of glyphosate for pre-harvest desiccation because ‘it leads to higher levels of glyphosate residues in our food’ and because of the detrimental effect on wildlife.

The domestication of the wild grasses was the event that led to the rise of the city-states and civilisation as we now know it. James C. Scott, an academic at one of the Ivy League colleges, wrote a book called Against the Grain. In it he argued that the first city-states were dependent on grain, wheat and barley in Mesopotamia, millet in China, maize in Mesoamerica. ‘Cereals are easy to tax, they ripen at predictable times, the size of the harvest can easily be assessed, and the grain can be divided, transported and distributed in precisely measured rations by weight and volume. It is much more difficult to tax merchants who smuggle their goods, or to tax crops such as tubers that are hidden underground and can be dispersed throughout woodlands, or chickpeas and lentils, which have an extended ripening season. If the cereal farming takes place close to a river that can be used for bulk transportation, a potent power base can be established. That is what happened among the river and canal systems of Mesopotamia and Ancient China.’

Common wheat is still a valuable commodity, traded on the stock markets, its flour desired by bakers everywhere. Whether it continues to be the choice of flour for breads, cakes and pastries is the challenge that must be met by the breeders. New varieties must be resilient, resistant to the vagaries of climate change and the market place, where the yield is pivotal to the price. But if the new varieties don’t meet the nutritional requirements of demanding bakers and sensitive consumers there will be competition, from spelt in particular.

Since the 2010s spelt production in Switzerland has doubled. This is because it can be grown in poor soil, is resistant to the cold and has a unrivalled nutritional package – magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B1 and zinc. Bread made with spelt flour has a nutty flavour and something else that has been known for a long time.

The issue over gluten might weaken wheat, it is difficult to know. For now, in the countries with a wheat tradition, it is still in the ascendency. Somehow though there is a sensibility that suggests a move toward other grains, especially spelt which can be grown on marginal land and a grain we have forgotten about.

The Turks have another story. A tree’s roots are in the earth, a man’s roots are in bread. Wheat no more, the future of bread will be different, it will be made with einkorn. An Anatolian native, einkorn is a hardy grain. It can tolerate extreme climatic conditions and is resistant to diseases and pests, and it could become the saviour once again. Modern wheat varieties pushed grains like einkorn and spelt into the background, now their roles are more prominent.

Einkorn is grown in the Balkans, France, Morocco and Turkey, where it is seen as a healthy alternative to modern wheat, especially genetically modified wheat. Like spelt, einkorn has a low glycaemic index and is therefore easily digested. It also has a low gluten content. It contains twice as much vitamin A as modern wheat, more iron and more zinc. 

Bread began with ancient einkorn, could it continue with modern einkorn?

… continued in part 8.

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