If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat today. But if you give him 30 wheat seeds, he’ll have to wait three years for a single loaf of bread.
The time and labor involved in cultivating a healthy wheat crop has generally put a damper on the resuscitation of heirloom varietals lost to industrial methods developed in the 1950s. Even after a grower has produced enough of a forgotten grain to consider milling, there’s a fair chance that the flour won’t taste very good, and finding out requires destroying many of the seeds needed for next season. But brewers and distillers anxious to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace are pushing seed companies to put regional, colorful wheat types back into circulation.
“We get calls all the time from microbreweries saying they’re looking for a new flavor, what have we got?” says John Fendley, owner of Sustainable Seed Company, located just down the road from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in California. Sustainable Seed speculatively grows out a few hundred grains each year, using seeds from family farms and the USDA seed bank. “And we’re like, we don’t know. We throw out varietals and see what’s exciting.”
Heirloom grains still haven’t caught the public imagination in the way of heirloom apples and tomatoes. The unique qualities of those fruits are “in your face,” says Colin Curwen-McAdams, a graduate assistant at Washington State University’s Bread Lab. Certain heirloom tomatoes are squat, broad-shouldered and inky purple, sharing only a general structure with the orthodox red orbs sliced up for burgers and BLTs. By contrast, the most visually striking wheats tend to look white and powdery when they’re transformed into flour.
“With wheat, people think of it as an inert product,” Curwen-McAdams says. What they don’t see, he adds, is the range of flavors and cultural significance encoded in various wheats. One of the wheats that Curwen-McAdams has in mind is purple straw, which new research has established as one of the Southeast’s foundational grains.
Fendley first came across purple straw wheat in a book published in 1860, a few years after it impressed Southern farmers by weathering a joint worm outbreak that took down other varietals. He poked around the agricultural record and learned the wheat dated back to 1822, compelling him three years ago to order a starter stash of seeds from the federal government.
At Old Salem Museum and Gardens, horticulturist Eric Jackson followed much the same course: After consulting the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, he bought purple straw seeds from a man in Massachusetts for $10 a pound. Birds ultimately desecrated Jackson’s wheat patch, undoing the history center’s bread production scheme, but he had a chance to enjoy the fetching purple stems first. “As far as being a wheat field, it looked great,” says Jackson, who’s planning to grow the grain again.
“They’re growing it, and now they’re realizing they’re sitting on a national treasure,” marvels University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who recently traced the wheat into the 18th century by “cutting through the nonsense” of names applied to the strain by misinformed and maverick growers. When he sorted out the lineage and realized it led back to the Colonial era, he was “just stupefied.”
Since falling out of commercial production in the 1970s, purple straw has survived primarily in isolated, unadvertised fields. “There’s always some joker in the South who keeps on growing it,” Shields says. “I’m sure in some of the dry counties of Tennessee and Kentucky, there are people growing it for still action.”
During its heyday, purple straw was surely used to make whiskey. But Shields says the spring soft wheat was equally well-suited for baking confections such as Lady Baltimore cake. Purple straw is high in protein and low in gluten: While those properties pose challenges in a bagel factory, they’re sought out by pastry chefs.
“The three things that matter in the South are whiskey, biscuits and cake,” Shields says. “I can’t think of three things that have more traction.”
Purple straw was likely valued in the South for its early maturation, which allowed it to sidestep summertime pests and diseases. It’s also possible that flavor boosted the varietal’s popularity, although farmers such as research specialist Brian Ward of the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center, who’s now growing purple straw at the behest of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, have to produce more wheat for large-scale baking experiments.
“Sometimes you do have to make a biscuit,” Curwen-McAdams says. “There’s not a test you can run to see if it makes good biscuits.”
According to Fendley, average eaters are unlikely to pay attention to heirloom wheat until there’s enough tasty heirloom flour available for pizza and pasta doughs. Then, “there’s the restaurant effect, where people are sitting down and eating pizza and saying, ‘this is amazing,’ ” Fendley says.
Public support is critical for the future of genetic diversity, but wheat production isn’t merely a matter of sowing seeds and hoping for rain. Fendley recalls a Chez Panisse sous chef in California who carried home old-fangled wheat seeds from Italy, intent on making profoundly good noodles. Unlike modern wheats, it grew to a soaring height. “The farmer was like, ‘I can’t harvest this. This is a waste of my time,’ ” Fendley says.
Southern farmers are likely to be more invested in purple straw, which has already stoked the excitement of South Carolina distillers and bakers. “The boutique whiskey crowd is going to take this to the limit,” Shields says. “Scott Blackwell (of High Wire Distilling) is salivating.”
This spring, Old Village Post House chef Forrest Parker baked purple straw flour provided by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills into a puffy pate sucree with benne. “Because we had so little to work with, we were paranoid of overworking it,” he reports. “It didn’t seem like we used more butter than ordinary, but that pastry crust was super flaky. Granted, we had benne all over it, so there was this nutty thing going on, but I swear there was this light floral scent as it baked.”
Roberts sourced his purple straw wheat from a Moravian family in the Midwest. That’s how his friend Shields came to taste a purple straw biscuit.
“They were fabulous,” he says. “As I was eating them, I was thinking, ‘Wow, these are great. They make Hardee’s look bad.’ ”