Tag Archives: heritage grains

Local grain, local bread

Bread with Sussex landrace flour

Once upon on a time in Britain, we grew our own grain, milled it locally, and used the flour to make bread in bakeries and village ovens across the land. These days, most of the flour we use for real bread* comes from North America and Central Asia. I’ve made bread with more locally grown flour before but never with locally grown flour made from landrace heritage wheat. So I was interested to hear from Michael Hanson of The Hearth pizzeria and bakehouse in Lewes, East Sussex (which recently featured in Dan Saladino’s Food Programme show about pizza) that he was using locally grown grain to make flour for their products.

Michael has been using heritage grains in Hearth products for a while now. He’s friends with John Letts, a Canadian archaeobotanist and key figure in a movement to try and restore a diverse bank of British landrace grain varieties. Letts looked at the grains found in thatched roofs to learn what varieties were farmed around Britain, as the straw used in places dated back to Norman times. Michael now has a small crop of about 20 acres (8 hectares) of wheat, rye and barley at South Farm at Rodmell, just outside Lewes, utilising seed from Letts and the farming expertise of the owners, the Wetterns.

Hearth Lewes

Ancient locals and micro-malting
Michael refers to the crop as a Sussex landrace mix including “maybe 40 or so varieties [of wheat], ditto the barley and rye, ancient varieties.” Michael’s also hoping to start a “micro-malting” operation from his base in the old Lewes bus depot. It’s certainly exciting – at least for people like me who are bakers, and into food provenance and history. Michael says they’re now using flour ground from the grain for the bread they sell in the Hearth bakehouse, as well as combining it with strong white flour to make the dough for the pizzeria. There can’t be many bakeries or pizzerias in Britain that can say that.

It’s not exactly milled locally, being transported to Offley Watermill in Staffordshire. There are several working wind and watermills more local to Lewes, such as Ashcombe Mill near Kingston, or the watermill at Michelham Priory, or even the mill at Jimmy Page’s old house, Plumpton Place, but Offley offers expertise from the Howells, who have been milling in Stafford since 1840 and at this location since 1943. Michael said they’re “seventh generation millers”. He’s yet to find anyone with such qualifications locally. Incredible really, considering, again, about 150 years ago, every town and village had numerous mills.

End of first prove on 100% Sussex landrace wheat flour bread

Low protein challenge

But what is the flour – stoneground, about 80% extraction – like to work with? Well, I must admit, I found it challenging. Some of today’s most respected bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco say, work wonders with ancient grains. But this whole question of making light, open-crust breads with low protein flours is tricky. As we’ve been getting much of our bread wheat in Britain from North American and Central Asia the past 150 years or so, our baking tradition has markedly changed. Due to climactic factors, wheats grown in Britain generally produced lower protein flours, “soft”. These foreign flours we’ve been using are from higher protein, “hard” wheat, and our baking has become dependent on it, has been shaped by it.

When we learn to bake in Britain these days we’re told you need the high protein flours, so you can develop the gluten (gliadin and glutenin proteins) to give it structure. High protein flours can contain as much 15%, whereas lower protein flours (plain or all-purpose) generally contain around 10%. Tom, the baker at the Hearth bakehouse, reckons the Rodmell flour could be as low as 8% protein.

Sussex landrace flour

Other countries, such as Italy, haven’t become so dependent on high protein flours. During my years in Rome I’d buy various farro flours from the farmers markets and made some very tasty breads with them, but they were mostly dense affairs. These days I do mostly use a mix of strong white, likely grown in Central Asia but stoneground in Dorset by Stoates, and spelt flours. Using Michael’s flour reminded me of my experiments in Italy with farro flours grown by umpteenth generation contadini (loosely, “peasants”) in the hills of Lazio. The 100% Rodmell flour bread I made (65% hydration, basic bulk fermentation) was very tasty, with a sweet, nutty flavour, but it was a dense proposition. The kids didn’t turn their noses up, but it was a hearty meal in itself (a valuable quality for peasants of old).

My second attempt used 40% Michael’s flour, 60% Stoates strong white, and it’s great. Relatively open but even grain. This is perfect for the kids’ toast. Much as I love the wildly uneven, massively open grain you find in hip “artisan” breads and ciabatta say (ie high hydration dough breads), it’s not ideal for toast! Anyway, I reckon I could increase the mix to 50/50 with Michael’s flour. That’ll be my next test.

In the meantime, it’s been wonderful to be part of this experiment to restore some Sussex landrace grain. Anyone else who fancies trying it, visit The Hearth in Lewes! Or if you’re a landowner, get in touch about growing your own grain!

40% Sussex landrace flour loaves

 

* That used in industrial pap is different matter. It’s an interesting story I’ve touched on before, but as pap – indigestible pseudo-bread made with the Chorleywood process – is such an execrable product I’m not talking about it again here.

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Wholesome, wholegrain Magister and einkorn bread

With Sussex Hops

One of the things I enjoyed in my bread-making experiments in Italy was trying different flours, many of them traditional or what’s called “heritage grains”. This is a slightly vague term, muddled up with food fads, but basically it just means grains that are older strains. In the case of wheat*, they can either be alternative varieties to common/bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), or local variables, cultivated over generations to suit a particular terroir.

When I was trying to get my head around the Italian names for grains and flours – particularly the vexed question of what’s meant by “farro” – I wrote a few posts (here and here), where I started learning about some of the different strains and varieties of wheat.

Key heritage wheats that have survived the 20th century’s industrialisation and intensification of agriculture are einkorn, emmer and spelt, or to use their scientific names: Triticum monococcum, Triticum dicoccum and Triticum spelta. As with a lot of taxonomy, things are constantly being revised or bickered about; spelt is interesting, as it’s either Triticum spelta, or classified as Triticum aestivum var spelta, ie a variety of common wheat.

Whole loaf

Olde English
Since coming home to England at Christmas, after our two years in Italy and two months travelling in the US and NZ, it’s taken me a while to get back into the bread-making.

This is partly as we have a rubbish oven, partly as I forgot to pick up my leaven from my mother, who had been looking after it, and partly because Lewes now has a couple of great places to buy real bread these days: Flint Owl and The Hearth, which also has the town’s only proper pizza, made by master baker Michael Hanson and pizzaiolo and in his wood-fired oven.

Yesterday, however, I dived back in to the bread-making. I’ve been buying flours, and some of it needed using – particularly the Dove’s Farm wholegrain einkorn I bought that had a “Best before” date of July 2013. Ooops. Best before dates are, as sane people know, just a guideline, but flour does get a bit stale and loses its verve.

Still, at least it’s flour with form. The packet says Dove’s, one of Britain’s bigger organic flour brands, has been growing it on their farm on the Wiltshire/Berkshire border since 2008, and that the einkorn itself “was the original wheat, developed over 20,000 years ago”, and that it’s “the earliest type of wheat grown & eaten by mankind.” As such it can be seen as the crop that symbolises the human transition from wandering hunter-gatherers to settled farmers. You could say it’s the foodstuff that represents the founding of human civilisation, in Eurasia at least.

Einkorn, Sussex

So that had to go in. As did some lovely Sussex Bread Flour from Inbhams Farm Granary. These guys are a small operation, based in Surrey, the county to the north of Sussex. They sell a range of British grains and flours, as well as home milling equipment. Their emphasise the importance of freshness in grain products. Ironic considering the potentially state of the einkorn flour I had.

Still, the Sussex Bread Flour is not only relatively fresh, and thoroughly local, it was also a nice variety – Magister wheat, which Imbhams describe as “an older two row** variety” that “is a strong (high protein) grain”. It’s a winter wheat, and a variety of Triticum aestivum. I asked about the flour, and James Halfhide of Inbham’s explained that “Magister is a modern 21st century grain introduced from Germany and a ‘2 row’ variety – so an ‘older style’ of grain not unlike spelt or naked barley. So you could say it will carry some older characteristics – one we liked was the flavour. More modern breeding has lead to the ‘4 row’ varieties so they look ‘square’ and usually shorter straw stems.”

Between the two flours, both wholemeal, it made for a seriously wholesome dough, with only minimal elasticity. The einkorn has a protein level of 10.6% and while the Magister might be higher protein (around 12.5%), it’s stoneground and very branny. The resulting loaf has a close, slightly crumbly crumb. Very tasty though. And great with my favourite peanut butter brand.

Being back home in southern England, with its ongoing wind-wracked soggy apocalypse, might be miserable in some senses compared to poncing around the NZ summer or living in Roma, but at least I can get my Whole Earth Crunchy Original – a delicious type of peanut butter made with the peanut skin left on and one of the few foodstuffs I was transporting back to Italy after trips to England.

Sorry, it’s just better than any of those US Peanut Butter & Co varieties I’ve tried, despite that brand’s success (and hip excursions into film and TV; I first spotted it on screen a year or so ago in Girls) and even better than Pic’s Really Good, which I enjoyed a lot in NZ, as it’s from Nelson, a town I’ve got a lot of affection for. Those skins in tandem with butter – yes, butter, I like animal fat with my peanut fat – and this wholesome bread made for a cracking elevenses snack on this filthy morning.

Whole Earth

Not really a recipe

For one medium loaf I used:
500g wholegrain einkorn flour
250g Sussex Bread Flour
525g water
12g fine salt
10g fresh yeast

I’m using these same flours to feed up my leaven, but that’s not really ready for baking yet, so fresh yeast it was.

I also used water from our Brita filter. The tap water here in Lewes is pretty hard, and full of god knows what chemicals. I’m not sure the Brita existing makes it as pleasing as water bubbling from the ground in a mountain meadow in spring time, but hey, it’s got to be slightly better.

I just crumbed the yeast into half flour, then added the water and made a sponge. Then I added the salt and the rest of the flour.

I gave the dough a few short kneads over about an hour, then formed a ball.

Then I left in a cold place (about 10C; cold crappy 1950s construction house, basically) for about eight hours.

I gave it a quick shape into a ball, then a final prove in a warm place (about 20C; old-school airing cupboard) for a couple of hours, until it had doubled in size.

Baked at 230C for 20 minutes, then another half an hour at 200C.

Wholesome, historic and local.

Magister einkorn cut

* “Wheat” isn’t just one member of the grass family (Poaceae or Gramineae), it’s several, including many strains that have had ooh, ten-plus millennia of crossing and selective breeding.
** As I understand it, when talking about grains as 2-row, 4-row, 6-row, it’s a reference to the number of rows of kernels on the ear.

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Recipes