In this article series on heirloom, ancient, heritage, and landrace grains, we’ll investigate the origins, the usages, the differences, and the bread-making qualities of these grains.
Lots of bread bakers believe these grains hold very interesting qualities under the current conditions of both grain breeding and farming, and of bread baking. For example, they are praised for their agricultural resilience, their nutritive value, and their flavor profiles.
However, there’s a problem: we may assume that heirloom, ancient, heritage, and landrace are synonymous to more “traditional,” “authentic,” “healthy,” and “nutritive” varieties of bread-making cereals. And we oppose them to “modern,” “industrialized,” “hybridized,” and “manipulated” sorts.
There’s a need to clarify some of these notions, and to make sure we’re talking about the right things with the right words.
Also, bread bakers are wondering which grains we should focus our attention on, in order to differentiate our products, to innovate, and to better sustain our environment.
In this first part of this series, we begin with an overview of the vocabulary and concepts that serve to distinguish the sorts of grains we have at our disposal. In future articles, we’ll address such topics as the modern agriculture of ancient grains, the biological and genetic characteristics of these grains, their health and nutritional values, what they bring into the local-food movement, and how you can bake bread with them.
Seeking for definitions
Let’s just start by digging into dictionaries to figure out the common meanings we associate with “heirloom,” “ancient,” “heritage,” and “landrace” notions.
Heirloom and heritage
In a general sense, “heirloom” is “something of special value handed down from one generation to another,” and its specific meaning, it is “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” (Merriam-Webster)
“Heirloom” thus “[denotes] a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal which is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture.” (Oxford) “Heritage” is pretty close in meaning to “heirloom,” – as a “property that descends to an heir”. It also encompasses traditional values, as it is “something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.” (Merriam-Webster)
What is of curiosity here is the fact that heirloom/heritage grains do not remain fixed in time, unchanged. They undergo generations of cultivation and transformation. At each passage, they are transmitted to an heir, and we like to imagine that what is transferred is the same thing as what was passed from one generation to the other in the past. That is simply not the case. Adapation is part of evolution. Plants evolve by responding to their environment by selecting the traits that will help it survive and reproduce at its best.
Humans have intervened in many ways in the breeding processes of plants – both at the large-scale commercial agriculture level, and at the more local, small-scale level of permacultural or organic farming.
Heirloom/heritage grains are as dynamic as the conditions that have affected grain growers for generations.
Their dynamic properties emerge from the selective and preservation practices farmers have expanded in order to grow and select the best grains out of a given crop, and to plant these seeds as a promise for a better and tastier harvest in the future. There’s resilience embedded in the heirloom/heritage mindset and approach.
“Ancient” is, well, that which is not recent, the latest fad, or new, isn’t it? Let’s delve deeper.
On the one hand, we think of “ancient” grains as “of or relating to a remote period, to a time early in history”. The classical, historical meaning of “ancient” relates to the period that begins with the earliest civilizations and which ends with the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century CE. (Merriam-Webster) It is therefore a period that is no longer in existence, but we have grains that we believe are a testimony of these periods.
Einkorn, spelt, and emmer are often labeled as ancient grains. These were sown, grown and harvested by early adopters of agriculture, thousands of years ago.
Bakers talk about “ancient” grain as grain that both existed in the past and that still exist in the present — because how could these grains be of interest if they couldn’t thrive now? In that sense, “ancient” could simply mean “very old,” that is, which “[has] been in existence for a very long time,” (Oxford).
“Ancient” is our means to connect the present with the past. Interestingly, in promoting ancient grains, the “old” can become tomorrow’s “new.”
Most grains we eat today have ancient origins. We ought to have a second look at whether we’re buying into them for their trendy appeal, or because we know exactly what we’re looking for, and what we’re consuming.
In its first occurrence in 1935, in Danish, “landrace” meant “a swine of any of several breeds locally developed in northern Europe. (Merriam-Webster) Generally, it is a “a local cultivar or animal breed that has been improved by traditional agricultural methods.” (Oxford)
The closest translation in French for “landrace” would be “terroir.” Both words relate to territory to some extent, and take into account local practices and histories.
Notions of traditional and presumably non-technological (in the modern sense) human interventions at the level of breeding seem to play a role in the manners in which we value landrace, terroir grains.
In France, for example, the Rouge de Bordeaux is a major example of a landrace wheat that farmer bakers have valued for the last decades. According to them, it shows great flavor profiles, and can produce sustainable yields. (Read “The Farmer, the Miller, and the Baker,” in Bread Magazine issue 19, and “Elmore Mountain Bread,” in Bread Magazine issue 20.)
Also, these farmer bakers talk about what is called blés de population in French, which could be translated as “population wheats.” These are various landrace species of wheat (dozens or more) that are sown and grown together in a same field (terroir). Over consecutive farming seasons, external factors from the environment (soil, weather) and the farming methods (organic, permaculture) will influence the growth, selection, and preservation of certain biological traits over others.
Farmer who grow population wheats claim that these show more adaptability to the soil, the environment, are more resistant to changing external factors, develop specific flavor profiles, and result in economically sustainable yields (but yield less than modern wheats).
Annika Michelson, in Bread Magazine issue 22 (p. 77), says, “Where monoculture fails, diversity and locally adapted small populations can survive.” She adds, “Landraces were developed throughout millennia, and they are living an open-pollinated life in an open ecosystem. Only by using them will it be possible to produce food in a way that allows humans to thrive.”
In the Dictionnaire universel du pain, Ludovic Salvo writes that grain growers up until the 18th century have mostly relied on the population wheat agricultural methods.
According to Roland Feuillas, co-author of À la recherche du pain vivant, population wheats offer denser nutritive value, are more digestible, and rely on farming methods (e.g. organic and permaculture) that are more environmentally sustainable.
Grains: a matter of time and space
While “heirloom,” “ancient,” and “heritage” seem to have a greater association with the notion of time, that of landrace is more specifically linked to notions about space and location. We’d be right in assuming that all of these grains are related to both space and time. In fact, the history of those grains – to be more precise, the story we tell ourselves about those grains – is rooted in the history of farming practices, and the industrialization of agriculture.
Richard Roberts is director of the Rare and Ancient Seed Restoration Project at Maine Grain Alliance. He says: “I’m not calling these varieties ‘heirloom,’ because they’re not these old grains that grew 100 years ago. Nobody really knows what these varieties were. We call them ‘heritage’ seeds, and that’s only because they’re from a different location that has a similar climate to that in the Northeast. A lot of people believe that these varieties are these ancient kinds that have different characteristics. They do have different characteristics, not because they’re ancient, but because they’re sourced from a different place.” (From the full interview with Richard Roberts in Bread Magazine issue 22, p. 68.)
Whether we call these grains heirloom or heritage, location and the manners in which these grains have been cultivated over time play a major role. It is the process through time that matters most, rather than trying to single out features that would remain essentially the same regardless of human’s intervention, or environmental conditions. Could such an ahistorical, pristine and pure quality really exist?
This is where “premodern” and “modern” enter the equation.
The premodern vs. modern problem
The modern problem, as promoters of an alternative model to industrial agriculture put it, is that “[s]eed breeders changed the seeds from open pollination to closed and started manipulating pollination. They also started to change the seeds’ detailed structures by modifying their genes.” (read the interview with Annika Michelson in Bread Magazine issue 22, p. 75)
From that viewpoint, modern wheats are hybridized and manipulated sorts that no longer retain the properties that they’ve developed naturally over centuries.
Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, authors of Modernist Bread, label as “traditionalists” those who see more value in upholding, and in innovating from within traditions that have been passed on from one generation of farmer, miller, and baker to the other. From the traditionalist standpoint, the golden age of our inherited practices and values lies in the past. The future can only be improved if we give predominance to what we’ve inherited from the ancients, those that preceded us.
In contradistinction to traditionalism, they propose a “modernist” approach that seeks to innovate by challenging traditions on the grounds of scientific inquiry and empiricism, and by looking at the future as the place where things will actually be better and improved.
They argue that what we consider most of the time as “traditional” or “artisanal” baking methods and techniques are actually the results of inquisitive modernist bakers. They give as example Chad Robertson’s world-renown country loaf, and the ciabatta. While both appeal to our sense of, and our need for tradition, they are modern inventions. The former results from a high hydration dough, for which there is no account in century-old, classical bread recipes. The latter was invented in 1982 by Arnaldo Cavallari, an Italian racing drive who chose to dedicate himself to his family mill.
As far as grains are concerned, the premodern-vs-modern problem translates itself into the mindset and methods of contemporary farming and agriculture.
As Annika Michelson pointed out, wheat was subjected to modern manipulations that changed its properties beyond what most people could accept as an inheritance of tradition.
Which grains are modern, and which are not?
Heirloom, heritage, landrace, and ancient grains are all, in a way, modern grains. They are valued from a modern viewpoint, or with the hindsight of modernity, and they are cultivated with innovative, technological means that were not known to farmers even a century ago. Even permaculture is modern.
What distinguishes these grains from those we may label as “hybridized,” or “manipulated sorts” is the manners in which humans have engineered wheats that have come to dominate industrial agriculture.
The story of the agriculture of grains and cereals is something we’ll address in a future post. Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya write in Modernist Bread (vol. 2, p. 89) that, while hybrid wheats are sterile, are less genetically diverse, and are not yet widely available, “Hybrids work well on a commercial scale because the plants are so genetically similar they grow to the same size and ripen at the same time.”
In the next post, we’ll focus on the biological and genetic characteristics of heirloom, heritage, ancient, and landrace grains, as opposed to industrial sorts. That will allow us to use an even more precise vocabulary to discuss the issues at hand.