A Grain of Experience

After another dietary study giving refined carbohydrates a bad name and confirming that saturated fat is good for us, a post in praise of bread seems poor timing. I was already coming round to thinking the official doctrine over the past fifty years of ‘good carbs: bad fats’ should be turned upside down, especially after reading The Big Fat Surprise. But it’s hard to throw out the staff of life, and I hate working against the grain. Plenty of people besides those with celiac disease are giving up on wheat, and bookshelves at Barnes and Noble are creaking under the weight of the latest dietary advice in: Grain Brain, Grain Free Gourmet, The Paleo Diet, No More Grains…

No one knows when people started to eat wild cereals (although Neanderthals did), which were some of the earliest crop plants. Archeological evidence of acute wheat sensitivity goes back at least 2,000 years, so intolerance to gluten and other wheat antigens is not a new problem, although a growing one. The Mayo Clinic reports that celiac disease is four times more prevalent today than 60 years ago, and presumably not only because more cases are diagnosed.

There is a glutinous history of non-celiac intolerance to wheat too, if largely anecdotal. At one time, symptoms were dismissed for being ambiguous or psychosomatic, and there were no specific tests. But the condition is gaining scientific respectability, and evidently affects larger numbers of people (perhaps 6% of some populations). The symptoms are similar to IBS, but I won’t wade into them in this genteel blog. Modern strains of wheat are often blamed for both celiac and non-celiac intolerance, although the boatloads of sufferers are rising with a tide of other allergies, which presumably have different causes— asthma, hay fever, eczema, and other food allergies.

Modern wheat has undergone a lot of genetic changes through hybridization, polyploidization, and cloning since ears of the wild parents were first plucked by our remote ancestors. Wheat and barley fields (still called ‘cornfields’ in Britain) even look different to when I was a lad—in height and density, and the unnatural absence of weeds. The amazing increase in crop yields is one of the achievements of Norman Borlaug and other agronomists who launched a Green Revolution in the 1960s to feed a world which was becoming worried about famine.  As plant genetics were altered so were their antigens, which offered a possible explanation for some of today’s ills.

When I decided last week to defend wheat bread, I wasn’t thinking about dusting off the bread machine to make a loaf with regular (‘strong’) flour. The experimenter inside reached for an old variety of wheat, even older than spelt or emmer. I ordered a bag of einkorn flour to make the dough, and kneaded it by hand. Einkorn is grain’s great granddaddy.

Its name (‘single grain’) suggests a native from Germany or Switzerland, but it is in fact a virginal grain that originated in the Levant. Neglected for centuries, it is being cultivated again on a small scale for the curious and anyone searching for something more agreeable to their gut.

Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968)

Wild and cultivated einkorn wheat (Triticum boeoticum and T. monococcum) are closely-related, diploid species. Traces of ancient wheat and rye grasses have been found in settlements of the Natufian culture (13,000 to 10,00 B.C) discovered by Dorothy Garrod in the Mount Carmel area of Israel. They grew more bountifully in those times because the climate was milder. Although yields of cultivated einkorn are low by today’s standards, the flour is highly nutritious: higher in protein than most modern flour, lower in starch, and slightly yellow from carotenoids. The tiny granules make the powder look fluffier.

Even before I stuck my fingers in the dough, I was under no illusion that the product would look anything like a big, bubbly Wonderloaf, and I hoped it wouldn’t. The trade-off I counted on was greater flavor and nutrition, and the recipe I chose was simplicity itself. Just five ingredients—flour, water, honey, salt, and dried yeast—and a tad of butter for good measure. They made a rather gooey, less plastic, dough, that resented overworking.

Einkorn bread

The only novelty was based on a technique from Raymond Calvel (1913-2005), the doyen of French breadmaking who is credited with restoring artisanal bread. He had no polite words for the white bread that emerged after World War II, which he called ‘bastardized.’ His classic book, The Taste of Bread, is back in print. He called the technique, autolyse, which has nothing to do with the biological term, autolysis (self-destruction by enzymes). It is essentially a resting stage before any vigorous kneading, and I guess it helps to hydrate the gluten and flour particles. Einkorn contains different gluten proteins, but is still inadvisable for celiac sufferers. After rising (‘proofing’) and dusting with loose flour, I baked the loaf at 350°F. (~180°C.) for 35 minutes.

And the verdict is…?Einkorn bread

Good, but different! Nuttier/ denser/ firmer crust/ stores well. It is delicious spread with soft cheese, and didn’t provoke a wheat belly (bloating after eating wheat products). The flour costs more than the regular stuff, but no loaf is expensive, and what’s a little more if it makes you feel better and may be doing you good?

Will the experiment be repeated? Definitely. But next time I may start by milling my own flour from einkorn whole wheat berries to feel more Natufian.

Next Post: Scotland oot?


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