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Heavenly heritage breads

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 October 2013

Devon leaven

Devon leaven

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With so much friction between the ‘bake-off’ bread-heads and the carb police, it can be hard to tell whether bread is good for you or not. The answer of course is yes, and no. Bad bread is bad for you. Good bread is good for you. Heritage bread is probably best of all.

Penny and dragan Williams run the Love Loaves artisan baking school in SparkwellPenny and dragan Williams run the Love Loaves artisan baking school in Sparkwell

At The Artisan Bakery School in Sparkwell, we define heritage bread as the sort made using ancient methods and the oldest forms of grain still grown. Ancient methods use wild yeast cultures to produce natural leavens (no commercial yeast), and dough is fermented up to 96 hours before proving and baking in a woodfired oven. Modern bread factories process dough in seconds by adding a slew of chemicals that are hard to pronounce, never mind digest.

Heritage grains include spelt, einkorn, farro, khorasan and a few other kinds of wheat. Each one has its own particular baking properties, and its own uniquely valuable set of minerals and vitamins. The look and taste of breads made with these flours is totally different to anything supermarket-bought. They are more like the kind of bread that was eaten thousands of years ago, when loaves were valuable enough to be used as currency (hence the expression ‘bread-winner’).

Ancient grains are very different from their modern, super-hybridised cousins. The oldest forms have either two or three sets of chromosomes; modern wheat varieties have six or more sets of chromosomes. The more chromosomes wheat has, the more complex its proteins become and the more antigenic it is, meaning the more likely it is to stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies. Perhaps one reason behind the continuing rise in coeliac disease and wheat intolerance.

Loaves made with heritage flour not 
only have remarkable character but an impressive ability to satisfy your hunger. Ounce for ounce, a good einkorn sourdough keeps you going for longer 
than any factory-produced loaf. Heritage bread also releases sugar more slowly, so the spiking and crashing effects are removed, which is great news for anyone with insulin challenges or heart problems.

People with sensitivities to gluten, a tendency to feel terrible after eating normal bread, tend to find loaves made ‘the long way’ with heritage flours are easier to digest. This is because the long fermentation process produces acids which begin to break down all those proteins that the body finds harder to handle, and make the vitamins and minerals in the flour more available. Any naturally leavened, long-fermentation loaf is better for you than a quick, commercially-yeasted bread. But a heritage loaf is even better, because it’s made with a simpler, more nutritious substance in the first place. Heritage loaves contain nothing but flour from ancient grain plants, water, wild yeast and a little salt. And they taste like heaven!

Sadly, heritage grains are rarely seen in the modern landscape. In the 17th century, Poussin’s painting ‘Summer’ shows women reaping wheat as tall as their heads. This beautiful field probably contained multiple varieties of wheat, growing side by side to spread the risks of pests and diseases; if one variety failed, the field would still yield something. Modern farmers are pressurised by agribusiness to plant monocultures of super-hybridised, knee-high wheat that must be heavily doctored with fertilisers, pesticides and agrichemicals to survive.

Names of heritage varieties demonstrate wonderful diverisity – from Old Devon Rough Chaff and Sussex Stormproof to Golden Drop. But few people know just how much control government exercises over what we are legally allowed to grow. The oldest wheat left on the National List of Permitted Varieties is Maris Widgeon, in a form first listed in 1964. It’s not the most ancient variety, but it is the only long wheat we’re still allowed to grow in this country, and it’s critically important for thatchers. The National List is clearly favours of non-heritage varieties, but there are compelling reasons for change.

Heritage wheats have a vital part to play in our food security. Some varieties thrive better in poor soil, others in hotter and wetter climates. As weather patterns become more unstable, we need to literally grow more resilience. Fortunately, some folk are still fighting to maintain our potential to restore biodiversity in the wheatfields, and protect our food security.

At the John Innes Centre in Norwich no fewer than 60 wild and heritage varieties of wheat are growing in sample-sized plots, so that researchers, breeders and specialist groups can view them and compare their possibilities. Archeobotanist and thatcher John Letts is growing hundreds of heritage samples, and worked with Doves Farm on their heritage flour. A number of small organic farmers and millers are making heroic efforts to shift the balance, including one of our suppliers, Gilchesters Organics, whose heritage strong white makes amazing sourdough. And Campaign for Real Bread’s ‘Bake your Lawn’ project introduced the public both to the huge diversity of wheats it is possible to cultivate and the legal restrictions on doing so.

It is possible to choose bread that is good for your health, good for all our futures and tastes like a gourmet treat. Heritage grains have a provenance that dates back millennia, and heritage loaves are crafted by artisans – credentials enough to compete with any fine wine or single malt. Bring on the bread sommelier! n

The Artisan Bakery School offers one-day courses and residential baking weekends, including ‘Heirloom Flours, Heritage Techniques’ on Wednesdays 11am -4pm. Call Penny on 01752 837718. theartisanbakeryschool.com

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