In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether they’re really worth all the hype.
You know the type: cross-fit junkie, kale juicer, Paleo-diet adopter—and now—ancient-grain consumer. Spelt, millet, and buckwheat are now buzzwords on par with bone-brothing and macrobiotic foods. But what the hell are they?
Generally speaking, ancient grains are an un-processed form of whole grains that cultures across the globe have been harvesting and eating for centuries. They are often healthier than modern wheat, which has been chemically engineered, thus compromising its flavor.
The last part is what drives Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills in South Carolina, whose company produces an extensive array of wheat, rice, and corn coveted by the country’s best chefs. (Those tortillas at Mission Cantina? Made from nixtamalized Anson Mills corn, of course.) In reviving nearly extinct heirloom varieties of grains, Roberts’ mission is to change the course of modern agriculture by preserving the culture attached to planting practices and seedsmanship. Roberts breeds for flavor—not high yield—“in an effort to re-create the ingredients of the antebellum Southern larder.”
Ancient grains have also captured the attention of chefs across the country, moving away from health-food store purchases and into high-end kitchens and bakeries. Chad Robertson’s Tartine Book No. 3: Modern Ancient Classic Whole contributed to the trend, showing readers modern uses of whole grains in bread-making.
“He was bringing them to mass appeal,” says Pamela Yung, owner of Brooklyn’s newly-minted Semilla (“seed” in Spanish), which has its own bread oven. Yung earned a James Beard scholarship to study grains in Denmark and eventually teamed up with Roberts in South Carolina. “It opened up my imagination to a spectrum of flavor profiles, things that are nutty and acidic, and all of these other varieties like blue rye,” says Yung. “Toasted barley can add sweetness to a bread. I’ve also made things like buckwheat and toasted oat ice cream. There are all of these new challenges and ways to think about food.”
There are plenty of misconceptions about the ancient grains category, which the media have turned into a code-word for healthy living. Cheerios has already jumped on the bandwagon, releasing an ancient grains cereal with spelt and kamut. To help reveal the sneaky motives of modern agriculture and illustrate the benefits behind ancient grains, we asked Roberts to cut through the noise and give us the raw deal.
The term “ancient grains” has complex origins and is a phrase abused by PR firms.
Roberts says: It’s a totally imprecise term in popular culture. At the very minimum, it refers to pre-industrial whole grains that are considered to be the staple cereal foundations of the continents. This includes things like einkorn, emmer, spelt (which is a grass), millet, sorghum, and quinoa. Buckwheat could fall under this category, even though it’s actually a fruit. But a lot of the time the most important idea, provenance, is lost in the mix. Cheerios is going to release a cereal with “ancient grains.” But the idea won’t be meaningful; it will be “industrial ancient grains,” which is the highest form of dichotomy in modern agriculture. It’s a similar concept to wine grapes: einkorn, for instance, can grow anywhere, but they change flavor according to the location and season. The flavor of the ground has a much different story, and you have to respect and acknowledge that.
Modern farming degenerates gluten to a form that is unhealthy for humans.
Roberts says: There’s actually gluten in ancient grains, too, especially any related to wheat flours. Rye, wheat, emmer, and einkorn all have it, so celiacs can’t get near it. But people who simply shy away from gluten should consider this: Modern farming focuses on yield and metrics. They water down the wheat kernels and use tons of chemical fertilizers to produce a massive yield. It’s all about the creation of a super-high protein flour that will react quickly when used in baking. According to science in the European Union, the resultant gluten structure is not optimum for human health. In fact, the data says the gluten structure of wheat flour from ancient wheat makes those gluten sensitive individuals have no or much less of a reaction. But in America, the the Department of Health doesn’t recognize that research.
Most modern wheat is flavorless.
Roberts says: Older grains and ancient grains actually have a broader profile, essentially in the form of flavor aminos. That’s known science, period. To put it lightly, modern wheat was bred away from flavor; it wasn’t an attribute we thought we needed. We wanted high yield for acre agronomics. And we wanted baking quality, which requires the breeding of high-performance wheat. I find that the flavor of these wonderful, old grains is much more remarkable and compelling than anything new. Modern wheat is industrially processed, oxidized, and pretty much dead. They don’t sell it for flavor, they sell it for performance.
More flavor increases nutritional value.
Roberts says: One of the things that’s proven science in the European Union that’s not recognized yet in America is that flavor equals nutrition, especially in ancient grains. We need all the minerals in the flour, because they’re actually good for you. Those are called vitamins. Think of it this way: If you’re foraging for food, you’re going to look for flavor, which indicates nutrition. It’s a primordial exercise that we’ve largely been ignoring. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all farmers were matching flavor and nutrition.
A brief look at the variety of ancient grains
Farro: A light brown grain often used in Italian cooking. Restaurants like Bestia and Chez Panisse feature farro in salads.
Einkorn: A primitive type of wheat. Yung uses einkorn in shortbreads; the wheat berries can be tossed in salads, too.
Spelt: Often used as a substitute for rice and pasta, spelt was a common grain used in the Bronze Age.
Quinoa: A richer alternative to couscous, quinoa seeds hail from South America.