Establishing Focus: A Brief History
Amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea. Before cotton was king, wheat was queen. From the Panhandle to the plains of Alexandria, to antebellum Savannah, wheat reigned. Or rather, co-habitated. Before Cargill and ConAgra, before CAFO’s, ADM, and corn, farmers feed people, not
the Commodities Index. Wheat, and its colonial landrace varieties, was splendidly suited to American topography: its soil and climate producing a beautifully unique terroir.
Now, mass produced and relentlessly tampered and treated, wheat and its progeny gluten, (formed when wheat flour is mixed with water), have become a voiceless victim of ill-informed and ignorant diet sensationalism. But, despite severe and true celiac individuals, wheat (and cereal grains) posed no threat to humans for thousands of years. In fact, wheat gave civilization life. Quite possibly, wheat civilized humans.
When agricultural curiosity killed the farmer’s cat, Agribusiness and governments stepped in. A gentle, earnest experimentation began and gradually landrace wheat—thriving, idiosyncratic varietals of yore—were phased out, lost, and tilled into the soil banks of history. Concurrently, the treatment of the wheat berry at the mill grew to adulterous, staggering proportions. Committed to higher yields, lower costs, and easier machinability, wheat was bred for the stock market, not the farmer’s market. And when the leftover chemical gases of World War I were aimed at the flour mills—literally bleaching the nutrition to death—the death knell of humankind’s most important food rang with a reverberation that is still voluble today.
It is the mission of Bellegarde to source and mill sustainably grown landrace (heirloom, heritage) wheat grown in the South. As Southern Agricultural Departments research with more and more varieties, the wounds of the past may become healthy furrows for the future’s seeds. Dixie may, just may, have a crop of landrace wheat if we choose—as consumers, bakers, and farmers—to agriculturally align the stars. Projects such as the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project, companies such as Anson Mills, and bakeries such as Farm and Sparrow stand as mesmerizing commitments to adversity.
Concomitant with the manipulation of wheat in the field came manipulation of wheat at the mill. Roller milling, performed on a scale much greater than stone milling, soon changed every aspect of bread baking. Along with the greater and grander envelopment of all life’s aspects by machines, the roller mills facilitated a once tedious and local process into a smooth and national assembly line. Passing the tempered wheat berry through multiple rollers, two rollers at a time, allowed the mills to produce the whitest flour yet known. The technology of these rollers is such that the minutest chaffing of the wheat berry is possible, and all the dark, nutritious vitality of the berry itself can be strafed to a nearly pure, starchy endosperm. With purity comes vacuity, and with vacuity comes inanition.
As the mills’ production accelerated, so to did the fields’. These roller mills demanded more wheat—wheat which could feed the insatiable population of the country and the mills’ production requirements. And because the stone mills disappeared, along with their patient, holistic grind of the entire berry—often in only one pass—more wheat was needed. And so, wheat that fulfilled the requirements of an alarmingly mechanized and capitalized society was developed; as with other foodstuffs, wheat began to be grown not for its flavor or quality, but for its dexterity in the mill and strength in the market. In a word, wheat was grown for the bankers, not the bakers.
Louisiana, and the Southeast as a whole, has a deep and under-pronounced history of cereal crops. Rice occupies the imagination in this category, but over the past 20 years regional farmers have turned increasingly to soybeans and corn. The Carolinas have a rich and impressive relationship with wheat, as do Virginia and Texas. Currently—and historically—Louisiana, (along with Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi), grows soft wheat. As recently as 1920 the USDA, in an effort to continue and support wheat, published a booklet on wheat cultivation in the South. Such varieties as Bolton Bluestem, Jones Winter Fife, Egyptian Amber, Ironclad, Rural New Yorker No. 57, and Early Genesee Giant were sowed and milled in the South.
Traditionally, wheat grown in the South—because of climactic conditions such as rainfall, warmth, and soil—has a lower gluten content than its Northern (the Dakotas, Kansas, Colorado) counterparts and is generally better suited for cakes, pastries, and other products not requiring great strength. This is known as Soft Wheat, and although the above is true, it is only so to an extent. Soft wheat is and can be suitable for bread production; but only when a concerned and informed baker, utilizing traditional and gentle production methods, is baking. Although a few hard wheat varieties have been adapted to Southern growing conditions, and soft wheat varieties have been bred with greater protein content and better molecular weights, the vast majority of wheat grown in Louisiana is soft wheat sent directly to the feed troughs.
About 95% of American bakeries employ machines which mix and shape the dough into loaves. Because the production methods of these bakeries favor quantity over quality, the dough is punished and its development accelerated within the maws of this equipment. Only white, high gluten flour can take such a beating and still create a serviceable, mass-produced loaf.
Braiding the Rope, Closing the Loop, Tying the Knot
Bellegarde’s intention, then, is not to reproduce these methods. Nor their results. Fundamentally, the entire process—every rung in the ladder—must change. Wheat, non-irrigated, landrace (heritage, heirloom), smaller yielding, freshly milled with the integrity of a stone mill, will be the building block of this endeavor. The creation of a food system that involves all possible regional products and ingredients is imperative, and wheat must not be left out. Closed loop production, single origin—these are cornerstones of change in the ways that we eat and live. If our food and the people who make and grow it do not have integrity, then how can we?
The importance of a baker in this endeavor is two-fold. Most obviously, the baker consumes the wheat and incentivizes the farmer to a grow quality, non-irrigated crop. Secondly, the baker deflates the mis-informed postulations and paradigms of Ag Center clinicians. Too long have the state Ag Schools sidled up to the demands and seamless expectations of Agribusiness: borderline sycophants have accepted, without understanding fundamentally why, the context of constraint demanded by the food economy. With that, they believe the strongest wheat is the only wheat. Not so. Bakers and millers the world wide—from Belgium to Oregon, from France to New Mexico, have baked with wonderful wheat locally grown with lower gluten contents.