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Why Eat Ancient and Heritage Grains?

I’m not fond of telling anyone what to do. But if you value the planet and agricultural diversity, you would do well to eat more ancient and heritage grain products.

Einkorn, Spelt, Khorasan/Kamut, Emmer, Millet … we’ve always promoted these grains at Happy Monk Baking Company, and there are many reasons for it.

#1 Reason: The flavour advantage

My number one reason is flavour!

Nutritional advantages are one thing, but these grains have the bonus of great flavour.

We can go through our lives without knowing the taste of wheat or any other grain. But bread is more than a log of cotton batten flavoured with sugar and salt and maltose. I revel in the idea of showcasing the flavours of different grains, such as last week’s Sprouted Khorasan/Kamut loaf. You could detect a sweet grassy flavour enhanced with the sprouted grains added to the dough halfway through the process.

Not long ago, we featured a Rye and Spelt loaf, all-in with no roller-milled bread flour. Careful tasters could pick out the sweet nuttiness of the spelt grain, highlighted by the earthy tones of whole rye.

To experience the unique flavours of these grains can be a revelation to bread eaters who’ve grown up eating supermarket bread.

Supermarket bread

As a kid, I loved supermarket bread because of its pleasing texture and subtle sweetness. But a slice of toasted McGavin’s Brown Bread was more a delivery vehicle for a schmear of Squirrel Peanut Butter (later branded as Skippy) or Empress Strawberry Jam. Those were the flavours in the spotlight, not the McGavin’s. It toasted firm enough to hold our butter and condiments, but we never expected much more from it.

The bread wasn’t supposed to have flavour, in other words, but I knew it could when someone showed up at the door, like Aunty Betty, with a loaf of freshly baked “brown bread,” that was the exception that proved the rule! She’d likely made that treasured loaf with Robin Hood Brown Bread Flour and fresh baker’s yeast.

Even the so-called heritage grains 1, such as Red Fife or Marquis wheat, have distinctive flavours that are a joy to experience.

#2 Reason: Nutritional Advantages

Flavour is critical, in my books, but if you can enjoy nutritional advantages, what’s not to like?

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Ancient grains are a return to more straightforward, purer food that may solve the many issues around modern wheat. In the post-war years, grains underwent substantive hybridization with the noble purpose of increasing production, profitability and ultimately reducing the cost to the consumer.

But in the relentless pursuit of higher yield and disease resistance, the protein structure of these new wheat varieties may have been altered. And the toxins meant to fight disease may have resulted in less healthy food for humans.

Scientists believe these changes are one of the reasons for widespread wheat intolerance.

On the other hand, ancient grain crops come from seeds that have been around for millennia and have remained free of hybridization and GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) manipulation.

Grains like Quinoa, Einkorn, Emmer, Spelt, and Khorasan have been around for centuries. Einkorn is believed to be one of the first grains to be cultivated by humans. Emmer/Farro was eaten daily by ancient Egyptians.

Higher yields, higher profits

But these grains faded in popularity as hybridized varieties produced higher yields and, thus, higher profits. They also taste nothing like their distant ancestors, we’re told. Ancient grains are virtually unchanged from what they were thousands of years ago.

In a 2011 interview in Maclean’s magazine, Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back To Health, explained that the modern wheat plant is about two-and-a-half feet shorter than the wheat plant our grandparents ate from. Its stalks are thicker to support a much heavier seedbed.

And they’ve been hybridized to resist drought and fungus. The new characteristics have resulted in structural changes that Davis calls “Frankengrains.” 2

The benefits of ancient grains, on the other hand, are showing up in numerous studies. According to Davis, the simpler genetic makeup and water-soluble gluten levels in ancient grains are more easily digested by the body than everyday foods. Studies have shown that many people with severe wheat sensitivities do not have the same issues with Kamut (Khorasan) grain as they do conventional wheat.

The problem is most ancient grains are expensive to produce and limited consumer demand. This leads to my third and final “should.” (Sorry, I say in my way of Canadian politeness).

#3 Reason: Honour your farmer!

It would help if you ate ancient and heritage grains because you’re supporting a farmer, a miller, a baker … and, ultimately, yourself.

A farmer has to commit a season of enterprise to a crop and expects a fair return for the effort. Where does that grain go when it’s harvested? Where’s the market? And how much is the customer going to pay?

It takes a lot of courage to plant Einkorn instead of a product that will fetch a higher monetary yield. Modern wheat crops could produce twice the quantity of grain.

Maybe it’s not all about dollars, either. Perhaps the farmer also has the conviction of saving the planet by increasing the diversity of agricultural output. Creating a safer food system: where one crop fails, another thrives, replenishing the soil with vital nutrients.

We should recognize these farmers for their commitment, along with the millers who process the grain and the baker who puts bread on the table.

A labour of love

I think of the farmers around Armstrong and the Okanagan region who produce the Einkorn, Kamut, Emmer, Millet, Red Fife wheat … most of the grain used in Happy Monk bread. And they are well served by Fieldstone Organics, a grain handling facility that processes their grains and moves them to market.

I am thinking of Tom Henry and Violane Mitchell of Stillmeadow Farm in Metchosin, B.C. They grow red winter wheat, the first genuinely local grain we’ve been able to use.

Let’s not forget our local miller, Nootka Rose Milling in Metchosin, B.C.

And I’m thinking of Shelley Spruitt, of Against the Grain Farms in Mountain, Ontario. She was the source of the Ethiopian Purple Barley I used in a Purple Barley Loaf early this year.

“If it doesn’t have a story, we don’t grow it,” Shelley’s website says. Her passion for biodiversity and ancient grains is a labour of love, but I’m sure it’s a struggle.

Another heritage/ancient grain provider I’ve recently discovered is Ironwood Organics of Gananoque, ON.

I know people who are reluctant to eat food with exotic-sounding names. Eating a slice of Happy Monk Sprouted Kamut Sourdough bread might seem too adventurous. But if that’s you, you’re missing out on something special. 

And making the leap to eating ancient and heritage grains will do wonders for biodiversity, the planet, the farmer and miller … and even your own tastebuds!


Addendum

If you’d like to know more about Heritage and Ancient Grains, albeit with an Ontario focus, check out The Grain Project. It’s run by Toronto bakers Dawn Woodward and Edmund Rek, founders of Evelyn’s Crackers & Whole Grain Bakery. They’re pioneers in the local grain movement with an emphasis on baking with whole grains. Too bad I discovered this site after I wrote the above blog post! I find it inspiring and informative. Check out the recipes section of The Grain Project site. That Carrot Volkornbrot formula sounds amazing!


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  1. , e.g. grains that are more modern but have, like ancient grains, not been significantly genetically modified.

  2. Taken from an excerpt of the William Davis Maclean’s interview, which appears on the Fieldstone Organics website.

1 thought on “Why Eat Ancient and Heritage Grains?

  1. Wonderful reminders David!!..Wevlove when you use ancient grains. I find easier to digest.
    Thx. L

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