One of my favorite things about Italy was the markets. In the country house where we stayed—in Panicale, straddling the border of Umbria and Tuscany—we shopped at the local market nearly every day. We had eaten our fill of fancy shaved truffle pastas and Caprese salads in the city, and while we were in the country we intended to shop, and cook. The woman who ran the tiny store didn't speak a word of English, and we couldn't get very far on my two semesters of college Italian, but it didn't matter. We would point at cheeses and meats or chestnuts and artichokes, and she would either grit her teeth and tilt her hand from side to side or break into a wholehearted, approving grin. This was how we decided what to buy for dinner each day.
On the third day we were in town, though, we managed to learn that there was a farmers' market in a bigger city, Castiglione del Lago, 10 kilometers down the road. We woke up early and packed ourselves into our tiny, baby blue Lancia, and made our way down the hill and across the lake basin as fast as we could. (It's a good thing making the market was our biggest hurry of the trip, seeing as our beloved Lancia, even with the gas pedal flat on the floor, topped out at about 55 miles per hour on a downhill.)
At first we had a hard time finding the food vendors—outdoor markets in Italy apparently function more like department stores, the streets filling up with stands selling socks and hats and tights and children's costumes and housewares—but eventually, we made out a man with radicchio and endive and spinach and carrots, and from there the food wound on and on. There were beautiful fruits and vegetables—artichokes and clementines and persimmons and every sort of olive imaginable. There was a man with wild boar sausages and another with dried fish and one with an entire table of hard cheeses and fresh breads. And then finally, way up top, tucked onto one of the highest cobbled streets, we found the grain and bean bins.
And that was the first thing, I realized, that was really and truly different. Every other stall we had our version of in farmers' markets at home. We have the produce stands and the shellfish vendors and the meat guy and the cheese guy and the baker with a table full of breads. We have root vegetables and greens and fruits and granolas and even handmade pastas sometimes—but there is never, ever anyone selling locally grown grain, and only on the very rare occasion have I been lucky enough to find beans.
When we got back from Italy—when I settled into my desk and started checking email and making my way through the 279 messages that had accumulated while we were gone—I found something very exciting in my Inbox. It was a message from Andrea, Andrea who you sometimes run into in the comments section of this blog, and she said there was something I should know about. A couple in Amherst was starting New England's first grain and bean CSA, and she thought I might like to take part. They had been full for a while, but they had just opened up a few extra shares, and if I emailed them quickly then maybe, just maybe, I could get a spot. So I sent an email, and we (phew!) got a spot, and last month, on a snowy Wednesday in January, I drove to Amherst to pick our share up.
When I arrived, I had only a little bit of an idea of what to expect. I knew that the couple's names were Ben and Adrie Lester, and that they owned a bakery called Wheatberry on Main Street, and that this was where I should go. I knew that we would be getting grains A through K, and that there would be roughly one hundred and five pounds of them in all, and that I should come prepared to carry them out with six canvas shopping bags.
I did not know that they had an absolute stunner of a little daughter named Ella, and that their bakery was secretly exactly like the one I hope to open one day in Wellfleet, with cream and milk from a local dairy and sandwiches made with local meats and cheeses and veggies and fresh baked bagels and pastries and baguette and rustic breads and some of the best pickles and chocolate chip cookies I have ever washed down. (Together, no less.) And, most importantly, I had no idea what grains A through K were.
Since then, I've learned quite a bit. I've learned how to store whole grains—in cloth bags, downstairs in the basement where it's dark and cool. I've learned how to grind grains—by screwing this attachment onto our KitchenAid and playing around with coarse and fine grinds. I've also learned how to start cooking with things like farro and dent corn and spelt, and of course there will be more on that as the winter wears on. But what I've learned that I want to share most is simply what the grains are—what they're called and how they grow and what they grind down into and what we're supposed to use them for. We've gotten fairly out of touch with whole grains, especially the older, more unusual ones, and I think it might be nice to get reacquainted. So here goes—everyone, meet A through K.
A. Spelt: You've probably heard of spelt flour as an alternative to wheat flour for making breads for people with wheat allergies. But actually, spelt is a species of wheat—the grain we call wheat is really just common wheat, not the only wheat. Spelt is an ancient wheat species, one that was once important as a staple in Europe, and one that probably originated from a cross between emmer (we'll get to that) and common wheat. It has some gluten, so it can be ground down to make a flour for baking bread, which will have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor. People also use it to make pasta, and gin, and beer, and vodka, and in Germany, from what I gather, they dry the unripe grains and eat them whole as a snack called Grünkern. The spelt we got in our CSA share was grown by a farmer in New York, Clauss Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain. (Originally, the Lesters intended to use only grain grown in Western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley for the CSA, but because of the wet summer, they experienced several crop failures. They bought these grains in from other small New England farms.)
B. Red Fife Wheat: This grain was grown right near Amherst in Belchertown at White Oak Farm, the main planting grounds for the CSA. It's a heritage bread wheat, and it's good at adapting to all sorts of growing conditions. It's named for a guy named David Fife, whose family developed the strain around 1842. The wheat kernel is reddish, which gave it the other half of its name. Farmers like it because it can grown in poorer soils, and many of the bread wheats grown commercially today can trace their lineage back to Red Fife seeds. Recently, it's been making a comeback on small farms, with help from the Heritage Wheat Project and placement on the Slow Food Ark of Taste list. It is an excellent milling grain and makes top notch bread.
C. Hadley Wheat: This one is a bit of a mystery. I can tell you a few things about it—namely, that our particular harvest was grown in Hadley by a farmer named Alan Zuchowski, and that usually, his farm has grown tobacco. Tobacco did terribly this year, and so he was happy to have switched to wheat. He dried it in his barn, which has removable side panels that he opens and closes every morning and evening to let the light in and shut the dew out. Based on my milling experience, Hadley Wheat is a very hard variety, and is an excellent baking wheat, but other than that, I'm afraid I don't know much. I'm working on it, and I'll be back when I can tell you more.
D. Spring Barley: Farmers classify varieties of barley by the seasons because some need to be exposed to cold and some don't. Winter barley, for example, must be planted in the fall so that the seedlings will be exposed to low temperatures. Spring barley, on the other hand, doesn't need the cold, and so can be planted in the spring. The spring barley in our share was grown at White Oak Farm, and whole, is excellent for cooking into soups and stews. It can also be used to make malt for beer, and once upon a time, it was such an important grain that it was used as currency.
E. Zorro Winter Wheat: Winter wheat, like winter barley, is planted in the fall. It sprouts before the ground freezes, and then goes dormant until things warm up come spring. It needs the cold in order to flower, and so long as it gets it, it will be ready for harvest in early July. Winter wheats tend to be hard, which means that they have high levels of gluten, and make good flour for breads. (Soft wheats, on the other hand, tend to make better flour for cakes and baked goods.) The Zorro winter wheat in the CSA share was grown at White Oak Farm.
F. Winter Rye: Umm, are you catching a theme here yet? Winter rye is another one of those winter grains, and is often planted in the fall as a cover crop because it forms a ground cover quickly and is good at all sorts of handy things like protecting fields against erosion, finding leftover nitrogen, and preventing soil compaction. What's interesting, though, is that although a lot of small farmers plant winter rye as a cover crop, not many go to the trouble of harvesting it, because up until recently, there hasn't been much of a market. With the growth of the local food movement, more farmers are starting to harvest and dry the grain. I haven't quite figured out yet whether or not there's a use for it whole, but ground, it makes a mean pumpernickel bread. The winter rye in the CSA share was also grown at White Oak Farm.
G. Emmer: Remember this one from the other day? It's the grain I put in our soup, the ancient variety of wheat that also goes by the name of farro. It's best used just as is, soaked whole and then cooked down in soups or for cold salads or maybe just with a little bit of butter and Parmesan cheese. It can also be ground down into flour for making pasta. Whatever you do with it, it is a little bit nutty and absolutely delicious. Our emmer, yet again, was grown at White Oak Farm.
H. Dent Corn: When I picked up the share, this was the grain I was most curious about. It was big corn, in whole kernels, and I wasn't quite sure it would grind down. But apparently, dent corn has a lot more starch and not as much sugar as table corn, and it is soft, which makes it good for milling into cooking and baking grains like cornmeal and polenta and grits. Dent corn was a crop failure for the CSA, so Ben and Adrie bought it in from Eric Smith at Cayuga Pure Organics in New York.
I. Black Turtle Beans: These small, shiny black beans (which are also from Cayuga in New York) are the ones you see in rice and beans in Latin America. They're the most common black bean, and they have a dense, meaty texture and plenty of flavor. I think we'll be putting most of ours into soups and grain/bean salads, and maybe a few burritos here and there.
J. Boston Favorite Beans: Somehow, I do not seem to have brought any of these beans home. I can't tell you what they look like, or what they're used for, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say they are good for making baked beans with onions and bacon and molasses.
K. Oats: I am not going to say much here. Obviously, we all know what oats are, but the oats from our share (grown at White Oak Farm) are whole, not rolled. Since we don't have a means to hull ours, this means they will be going whole into dishes like this.
Well. I'm glad we got that out of the way. Think of this as a first time meet-and-greet, and I think we can all look forward to bumping into these grains again, maybe a little bit more one-on-one, another day. In the meantime, just in case you get inspired to go to the health food store or the market or wherever and seek out a few of these whole grains (if you find any that were locally grown, be sure to let us know!), I thought I might point you in the direction of a recipe. I made this the other day with our emmer, except with sweet potatoes instead of butternut squash and kalamata olives instead of toasted walnuts. It was absolutely delicious, and I have a feeling it can take all sorts of tweaks.
Have fun playing around with it, and enjoy the weekend, everyone.