When harvest came around in December we donned scissors alongside Tania, miller Liesl and baker Lise. We carefully snipped the heads off each stalk in each row which were then bagged and tagged, and later weighed. I thought I was going much slower than the others but turned out I was just harvesting the better yielding red wheat varieties to the point where everyone came over to help finish off those runs. We noticed some differences in the varieties, for instance the Yecora reselection had a darker grain, there was a range of colour differences in the purple wheats, from just a light tinge of colour to a full on deep, rich purple, some varieties grew taller and some had heads with more seeds than others.
Steve, Tania, and their girls then started the somewhat lengthier and creative process of separating the grain from the chaff, the batches being too small for their usual commercial equipment. Swinging bags of grass heads seemed a bit tedious so they borrowed a Minibatt (a portable grain sample Harvester) for threshing. Considering the small amounts we had every grain was noted for its value and any strays were picked up off the floor lest we lose any. What started out as 5g grew into yields of 300g to 500g. With the exception of one variety, the Tucursindi Durum wheat which was nonviable; did not sprout at all. After a few conversations between Steve, Tania and ourselves we decided to blend some of the grains for next year’s plot as among the 44 grain packets there were different successions of the same variety including 8 x Yecora red wheats, 19 x purple straw wheat and 4 x light purple wheats (two of which were durums). By blending some of the varieties we ended up with a larger grain amount in total, which meant that all things going well, we might get to the point of being able to test out some of these grains by milling, baking and tasting them a few years sooner.
From a Biodynamic farming perspective, seeing how the heritage wheat plants compete and interact with weeds is also a vitally important factor in whether they’re worth continuing to grow or not. They must adapt to a Biodynamic system because the seeds will receive no chemical help from fungicides, weedicides, herbicides or watersoluble fertilisers.
Of course, another factor is will people be interested enough to buy it? I was very excited to see how these blends went in the following season as I think they will have a great market in the baking community and amongst chefs generally. To me, getting chefs to also use new varieties of flour and grains would help spread the word about these lesser known varieties as chefs seem to have a different type of influence on the public and tend to shape the way people eat and understand food culture. Probably because we’re more used to seeing celebrity chefs and cooking shows in the media than say our head bakers. Although, anyone interested in the provenance of their food and who values variety will hopefully find these grains interesting and want to try them.
While I’ve never really had the opportunity to work with these varieties, the bit of research I’ve done makes them all the more interesting to try. The Yecora red wheat is said to be great for hearth breads (free form, baked on stones) with great flavour and makes a dough that’s considered easy to work with and commonly associated with open crumbed, light textured loaves.
The purple straw, an old American variety, is said to be a softer flour that was used in everything from cakes to biscuits to breads and said to add flavours of sweet honey and malt. In the US there’s some interest in this variety from the distilling industries for making whiskey due to its low gluten content and perhaps unique flavour. Being a novice craft brewer, I can also see Purple straw being used in wheat based beers and other styles as a specialty malt. So apart from the artisan baker crowd, perhaps there’s a market here for a softer wheat targeted at the home baker or for pastries or whiskey even?
The purple wheats, while they seem to have good flavour and baking qualities, are also being grown and studied because they are high in anthocyanins which are responsible for giving the grains their purple colour and are associated with potential health benefits such as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. There are also studies looking into whether the anthocyanins perhaps increase the shelf life of baked goods and whether coloured wheats have a higher nutritional content than white wheat, possibly more so in black and blue wheats than purple. Although it sounds like there isn’t enough research yet for it to be conclusive. It’s also worth noting that the components of grains differ by genotype but also due to the growing season such as temperature, moisture in the soil, soil quality, etc. Something to consider when we get around to test baking the flour.
So I guess we’ll have to wait for next year’s trial plot to gives us some more ‘food for thought’ and in the meantime we’ve listed below some of the articles we’ve been reading for you to peruse too and some profile shots of the different heads and grains.
(with edits from Tan & Jac)
A bit on coloured wheat and potential health benefits:
For pieces on purple straw:
For more detail on what a variety mixture, population wheat and landrace is and specifically the YQ and Q populations being grown out in the UK please see resources on the Wakelyn’s website: