The Revival of New England Grains
BY MARIA SPECK
“Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and fluctuating markets for them.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Have you ever tasted the fresh, natural sweetness of locally grown oats, the alluring acidity of rye berries, the deep earthiness of buckwheat? "What?" Have you ever baked with freshly milled flour from a local farm? Excuse me?
If you feel similarly baffled, you are in good company. Few people have. In fact, if you had told me 10 years ago, when I moved to the Boston area, that I would toot my horn nonstop for local grains, I would probably have said: What?
But since then I have often thought about my Greek mom and the dried beans she would carry in her suitcase whenever she visited Germany, her second home. I used to wonder why on earth she would carry boring dried beans, of all things. Because in her mind the fresh aroma and creamy texture of the Greek beans, harvested just months earlier, were unsurpassed. Store-bought beans didn’t come close.
Mom was right, of course. Cooking and baking with local grains and flours is such a revelation. Yet while we devour fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese and meat from farmers markets, grains—the foundation of our food system—barely register on our radar screens.
This last local frontier is finally being cultivated. Regional grains are coming into their own thanks to a quiet revolution across New England and the wider Northeast (see sidebar). Over the last decade, farmers, millers and bakers from Maine to Vermont and Massachusetts have all been working hard to rebuild a once-thriving local grains economy. In fact, these states were once ground zero for grains. The breadbasket of the United States was not the Great Plains of North Dakota or Kansas but the cold and humid New England of the first settlers and subsequent immigrants who carried precious seeds of rye, barley and wheat in their luggage.
All of this changed when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, thus enabling the cheap transport of wheat and flour throughout the Northeast. As Amy Halloran describes in her book, The New Bread Basket, grain growing and processing gradually shifted west, first centralizing milling in and around Rochester, New York, and ultimately moving to the Great Plains, today’s highly industrialized modern breadbasket. In 1874, there were 23,000 grain mills in North America; 125 years later only 201 remained.
Today, grains are again being grown, milled and baked into fresh bread by passionate pioneers all across New England. Maine Grains in Skowhegan, for example, is at the heart of the new local grain economy in that state. It buys grains from 24 farmers—up from two in 2012, its first year of operation, according to president and CEO Amber Lambke. This year, the business will process 700 tons of grains, double last year’s, making buckwheat, rye, oats and more available to stores and bakers across the region. Since 2010, Lambke also has been the driving force behind the nonprofit Maine Grain Alliance, connecting farmers, millers and bakers through an annual Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair.
At the same time Ben Lester, who ran the former Wheatberry Bakery & Café in Amherst, Massachusetts, has channeled his energy into offering a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program for grains, flour and beans, the first in New England. Similar to the vegetable boxes that arrive at your doorstep when you subscribe to a farm share, Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains offers a once-a-year pickup of a “grain share.” Since offering the first share in 2009, the business has grown to 200 members and counting. Members can choose among 14 different grains and flours from six farms, often organic or in transition, including wheat, rye, oats, spelt and cornmeal.
Still, grain farming in New England is not for the faint of heart. Four Star Farms in Northfield, a pioneer in Massachusetts, decided in 2008 to grow grains because they were “glaringly missing from the landscape,” explains Liz L’Etoile, director of sales and marketing. The biggest challenge, she says, is the weather, especially the region’s “disease-prone, humid” summers. In addition, successful grain farmers require a whole infrastructure, including a combine—a roughly $200,000 piece of equipment—to harvest(Four Star Farms borrows one from a corn grower in exchange for storing it on site); a special cutter for the combine; a “huller,” to clean grains with tough outer hulls, such as spelt; storage facilities and last but not least, a mill (Four Star Farms has three).
The family-owned farm grows hard and soft wheat, barley, rye and triticale—without the use of herbicides and pesticides—on 100 to 150 acres of land. These are served in area restaurants and sold in local stores. (The farm also grows hops and supplies many of the region’s craft beer brewers.) Looking ahead, the farm is excited to work with Jonathan Stevens of acclaimed Hungry Ghost Bread bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts. He hopes to bring farmers and bakers together this spring to provide the grain movement with greater visibility and support.
Stevens has long been a proponent of locally grown flour, which he incorporates into his breads. Its steep price compared to commodity flour is his biggest concern. Local grains and flours come indeed with a price, but the rewards are many. For one, you receive a premium product whose character will forever be imprinted on your taste buds. In addition, you are supporting farmers who work under challenging conditions to bring this superb food to market.
Grain from a recent harvest is intensely flavorful and cooks up fast. And fresh flour elevates all your baking. Just like a mouthwatering summer-ripe farmer market tomato versus a dull supermarket tomato, local grains and flours have vivid aromas and rich textures. They bring terroir to your plate, a distinct character fromthe land they were grown on. Once you try them, there is no way back.
Wheat, together with barley, millet and rice, was among the earliest grains cultivated by humans at least 9,000 years ago. It is distinguished by the season it is planted—spring and winter wheat, and by the type—red or white. Red wheat has a heartier aroma than white, which is milder and also lighter in color. Bakers differentiate further between soft and hard wheat, which have distinct properties for baking.
In addition, there are ancient wheat varieties, such as spelt (farro grande/see below), emmer (farro medio), or simply farro and einkorn (farro piccolo). Einkorn and emmer are the oldest wheat varieties domesticated by humans. Eli Rogosa of the Heritage Grain Conservancy (see sidebar) in Colrain, Massachusetts, has championed the planting of einkorn and other forgotten wheats. You might also find so-called heirloom or heritage varieties such as Turkey Red and Red Lammas, the latter once grown by colonists in Massachusetts.
All are wonderful varieties to explore in your kitchen, either as whole berries or as freshly milled flour. Farmers grow them not only for their superior flavor but also because they are more amenable to soil and weather conditions in New England, giving a whole new dimension to the term terroir, better known from growing wine.
Good for you: Whole wheat is at the heart of most U.S. studies of “whole grains.” Its health benefits are well established, and there are many: a significant reduction in the risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease; better weight management; reduced risk of asthma and inflammatory disease. Furthermore, fiber-rich wheat, rye and barley belong to a group of “prebiotic stars.” Ironically, these are the gluten-containing grains that many have avoided as of late. But it is these whole grains that help nourish beneficial gut bacteria.
Barley was probably the most important grain of ancient civilizations—from the Chinese and Egyptians to the Greeks and Romans. It was recently found in settlements in today’s Israel dating back 23,000 years. In New England, the grain was established as a crop for beer, its best-known use, by English and Scandinavian settlers.
In the kitchen, barley shines with a dual character, a distinct earthy aroma but also a subtle sweetness, making it highly adaptable in cooking. Yet unlike the more novel teff, amaranth and quinoa, this ancient grain gets the cold shoulder from many of us because there is no trendy table talk around it. To me, it deserves a central place on our table. With its comforting starchiness, barley is wonderful in fall soups and stews. It is equally enticing in grain salads, pudding or as a breakfast porridge. Last but not least, adding a portion of barley flour to baked goods such as breads and cookies rewards with a delicate malty flavor.
Good for you: Hulled whole-grain barley has the highest fiber content of all grains, including soluble beta-glucan fiber, which helps control blood sugar. It has more protein than brown rice, corn or rye. Barley even retains some benefits when its bran and germ are removed, as in pearl barley, because its fiber is not concentrated in the bran but distributed throughout the starchy center of the grain.
Supremely chewy and intensely aromatic, rye seems finally to be having its moment in the U.S. The grain, with its characteristic greyish hue and subtle tanginess, is showing up on restaurant menus and in bakeries across the country. Given my German roots, nothing could make me happier.
Rye is a latecomer to our diet. First cultivated around 3000 BC, it grows well in cold, wet climates, which explains its prevalence across Northern and Eastern Europe. Long a staple of the poor, it has so many uses worth celebrating. For one, it can be a wonderful base for whole-grain salads and a rich addition to stews. In baking, rye’s appealing natural acidity is a boon. Add some whole-grain flour, preferably freshly milled, to your bread to discover its unique character. Or try the rye chocolate brownies by Claire Ptak of London’s Violet bakery fame, which have become an Internet sensation.
Good for you: Rye’s health benefits are many. It contains a fiber that makes you feel full fast, which can help in weight loss, and keeps you regular. In addition, it has been lauded as a “prebiotic star,” helping your gut bacteria thrive. And if you are so inclined, rye from freshly milled grain makes the liveliest—and, may I add, tastiest—sourdough starter there is.
To those of us raised in German-speaking countries, baked goods and pasta from spelt never completely vanished from the table. “Dinkel” has been cultivated there for centuries, so much so that whole towns have been named after the grain. But with the advent of modern agriculture, spelt lost its role as a main staple because it is labor-intensive to grow and harvest.
Over the past two decades, however, this ancient wheat variety has again become a darling of bakers across Europe and more recently in the U.S. It has an appealing, mild sweetness, which makes it a great introduction for those who are new to whole grains. The reddish grains can substitute wherever whole-wheat berries are used. Its flour is especially well suited to flatbreads, pizza and pancakes. Germans have long harvested spelt early, in its green form, similar to Middle Eastern freekeh. This is called Grünkern and is dried over beech smoke, a process that infuses it with a rich aroma prized in soups and vegetarian burgers.
Good for you: Spelt has all the nutritional benefits of whole wheat (see above), plus it is higher in protein than regular wheat. The German mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) raved about its healing properties and declared it “the best of grains.” Some find spelt easier to digest than modern wheat.
A relative latecomer to the human diet, oats have been cultivated in northern Europe only from about 1000 BC. But they are the one whole grain we love to eat. Because the valuable germ and the fiber-rich bran are almost never removed during processing, rolled oats are indeed a power breakfast.
Yet there is so much more to oats than just eating them as porridge. For one, there is classic Swiss muesli, which seems to be having a moment right now: Combined with nuts and raisins, soaked in milk or yogurt overnight and topped with fresh fruit, it is ideal for a long workday. But we shouldn’t forget the alluring nubs of steel-cut oats. And don’t miss out on the pleasure of the actual whole-grain berries, typically referred to as oat groats. I believe the soft kernels, with their natural sweetness and notes of pecan, are underrated. So give them a shot in salads or add them for texture to a tomato or squash soup.
Rolled oats are prized for baked goods as well, adding appealing chew and slight density to pancakes, muffins, cookies and bread. Oats were once at the heart of shortbread, which dates back to the 12th century. Made from leftover oat bread and sprinkled with sugar, this classic treat was left to harden in the residual heat of ovens.
Good for you: The numerous health benefits of oats have been lauded for decades. Among them, oats contribute to lower LDL, better known as “bad” cholesterol, and may help lower blood pressure.
Native to the Americas, corn was sacred to the Aztec and Maya. It originated about 9000 years ago in southern Mexico, and is today the most widely cultivated grain worldwide (by weight). While it reached Europe only in the 16th century, corn spread quickly around the globe because it can grow in many climates. In the U.S., we celebrate corn or maize in many forms, craving golden cornbread, comforting grits, pancakes and, of course, popcorn. Native Americans called corn “mahisi,” which translates to “that which sustains us.”
Corn comes in many colors, from white and yellow to purple, red and bluish gray. It is naturally sweet and adds rich texture to baked goods. Local growers sometimes offer colorful heirloom varieties—as corn for popping at home but also as freshly milled cornmeal. Try it for making comforting polenta or use it in cornbread. Once you have sampled this richly textured and aromatic fresh meal, you will leave most supermarket bags on the shelf, as they are typically degerminated, thus robbing corn of most nutrients and flavor.
Good for you: Corn is rich in fiber and delivers 10 times more vitamin A than other grains, plus it is high in anti-oxidants. For best flavor and nutritional benefits, be sure to look for stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal.
THE GRAIN GROWERS
The following farms are at the forefront of the grain revival in New England.
Maine Grains, Maine
Organic rye, farro and rolled oats, plus freshly milled whole-wheat flour, heritage polenta/grits, cornmeal and more.
Butterworks Farm, Vermont
While the farm is renowned for its organic dairy, it has grown grains for 33 years. It has a granary for storage and a mill onsite to process barley, oats, wheat and spelt. Farmer Jack Lazor wrote a guidebook on grain production in the Northeast, titled The Organic Grain Grower (Chelsea Green Publishing).
Nitty Gritty Grain Company, Vermont
Organic hard and soft winter wheat, whole-grain pastry flour, plus different types of organic whole-grain cornmeal, including the flavorful heirloom Wapsie Valley.
Alprilla Farm, Massachusetts
Wheat, flint corn, barley
Four Star Farms, Massachusetts
Hard red and soft white whole wheat, barley, spelt, and triticale; all are available freshly milled, plus coarse cornmeal, and more.
Heritage Grain Conservancy, Massachusetts
Organic einkorn and freshly milled einkorn flour plus cracked einkorn, and more.
Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA, Massachusetts
A heritage grain share offers a selection of 14 whole grains, beans and freshly milled flours, such as whole-wheat, rye, spelt, cornmeal, oats, buckwheat, popcorn and more.
Aurora Mills and Farm, Maine
Organic whole-wheat and spelt plus rolled oats, and freshly milled oat flour.