The December issue of Smithsonian magazine features a story about heirloom wheat and the people who grow and bake with it. Eli Rogosa, director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and an artisanal baker, talks about her work in the field and in the kitchen. At the end she shares her recipe for a heritage bread.
Q: Why did you decide to devote your time to heritage varieties of wheat?
A: The silent crisis of the loss of genetic diversity of one of the world’s staple food crops is very serious—and very exciting, because there are still a lot of varieties that are in gene banks.
Q: What is your most memorable experience baking?
A: I’m working with a species of grain called einkorn, which is getting a lot of publicity these days because it’s safe for those with gluten allergies. Einkorn was originally domesticated in the Tigris/Euphrates/ancient Mesopotamian region, which today is Iraq. So I went down to the local Iraqi bakery recently and I said, “Would you like to try this bread in your bakery?” They were really excited, so I brought them some einkorn flour and they baked traditional Iraqi flatbread. They just couldn’t believe it. They said, “This is real bread, this is what it’s supposed to taste like.” The traditional methods that they bake with were the ways that einkorn was baked with for millennia. Now I think there’s five halal stores in the city where I was, Portland Maine. They just want to buy einkorn, so it’s in all the stores.
Q: Are there differences between working with flour milled from heritage wheats and standard supermarket flour?
A: It’s a whole different ballgame to buy from a local wheat grower rather than to buy from the store. The modern wheats are completely uniform. If you buy something from the supermarket, you know exactly what to expect. But if you buy a local variety from a local grower, it’s going to reflect the fertility, the variety, the weather. That explains why breads from different countries are so different.
Q: Can you substitute flour made from heritage grains for supermarket flour?
A: You can substitute. You probably might need a little less water, a little more salt because it’s lower gluten. But I just bake bread normally. I bake bread in the morning for my husband. Instead of doing a lot of kneading, I make my dough the night before and just let it sit and it gets a little bit fermented, like a light sourdough. So I think time is a factor if you make your dough the night before and then bake it the next day. It’s really easy.
Q: How much experimentation does it take before you get a bread recipe just right?
A: I don’t use recipes. I’m a creative baker—it’s easy to bake. I’ve read all the books, but I didn’t learn baking from books; I learned it from illiterate grandmas in Third World countries. Baking is like a natural process. You feel when it works right and follow the dough, and it’s very liberating when you bake by feel and consistency of the dough and not measuring. You have to play around to feel comfortable and familiar with what works.
Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in growing heritage wheats in his or her own back yard?
A: Find a local source for heritage wheat seeds, or contact me at growseed.org, and I’ll send you samples. It’s easy. Wheats are a grass. It’s the easiest crop I’ve grown on our farm. I grow only winter wheat, which means I plant it in September and harvest in July. I find that the winter wheats are better adapted, and in the spring they just shoot up and they compete with weeds, so your weeding pressure is really decreased.
Recipe for einkorn sprout bread, by Eli Gogosa
(Makes two loaves)
STEP 1: ADVANCE PREPARATION
Five days before baking, mix 1 tablespoon (T) non-chlorinated water (spring water, distilled water, well water or rain water, NOT tap water) with 1 T einkorn flour in a bowl. (Both einkorn flour and einkorn grain are available at natural foods stores or from growseed.org. Optional: Add 1 T cultured butter milk to encourage fermentation.) Cover but don’t refrigerate. Each following day, mix in another 1 T einkorn flour and 1 T non-chlorinated water. Keep the bowl at room temperature until the mixture has started to bubble. This is sourdough starter. Two days before baking, soak 1 cup einkorn grain in the non-chlorinated water overnight in a covered bowl. The next day pour off the water. Rinse daily and keep covered. The grains might start sprouting rootlets.
STEP 2: MAKING THE BREAD DOUGH
In a food processor, blender or hand-crank food mill, blend the soaked grains briefly so they are the consistency of chunky oatmeal. Mix the starter, 1 cup blended grain and 4 cups einkorn flour, 1 teaspoon (t) sea salt and 1 3/4 cups warm water. (If you are concerned that you may not have sufficient starter, add 1 t yeast. Optional: For sweeter, festive bread, add some chopped dates and walnuts to taste and 1/2 cup maple syrup in place of 1/2 cup water.) Add more flour if the dough is too sticky or more water if too dry. Knead the dough until it forms a ball that springs back when you poke it. Shape the dough into two loaves—flatbreads, boules or standard bread-pan loaves. Refrigerate overnight in bread pans or on a baking sheet greased with olive oil and dusted with einkorn flour.
STEP 3: BAKING
The next day, let the two loaves warm to room temperature for 1/2 hour. Dust the surfaces of the loaves with einkorn flour. Slash if desired. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Turn down the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the loaves at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the tops of the crusts are golden brown. Turn the oven off, but keep the loaves inside for another 1/2 hour before taking them out.