Ancient grains are making a comeback thanks to farmers and chefs dedicated to the old ways
ild cereal plant growth, such as barley and wheat, was supported by a favorable climate that followed the last great Ice Age, 12,000 years ago; mortars and mills of the time period have been excavated near Paleolithic caves. Neolithic people advanced by cultivating barley and wheat, processing them with sandstone mills and grinders, and cooking them in sunken pottery cooking hearths.
Native Americans cultivated the ancient aquatic oat we now call wild rice. Eight thousand years of rice cultivation has led to over 80,000 different varieties worldwide.
These ancient cereal grains have shaped countries, economics, spiritual beliefs, traditions, technology and diet for millennia. Today they are being resurrected as we embrace our traditional roots, encourage sustainable food systems and improve nutrition.
The terms ancient, heritage, heirloom and landrace have become synonymous when referring to grains that are cultivated from seeds that predate industrial processing and synthetic farming practices. Many farmers prefer the term landrace, as it more clearly defines and uses traditional agricultural methods of extensive crop rotation, deep-rooting natural growth process and whole grain milling, preserving the nutritive grain kernel.
Ancient and landrace grains include such varieties as wheat, farro, oats, barley, rye, quinoa, freekeh (roasted, cracked, young green wheat), rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, spelt, einkorn and emmer (the most ancient strands of wheat), kamut, sorghum and amaranth.
Subvarieties are prolific and enhance nutrition and flavor profiles of menu and baked items while adding intrigue for diners with specific histories of varieties like Rouge de Bordeaux, Crimson Turkey, Tibetan Brown, Rosen Rye, Empire Orange, Culinary Lime, Red Fife, Bronze Barley and Streaker Oats, just to name a few.
Compared to mass-produced grains, these grains grow deeper into the soil, collecting more nutrients from the soil and water, producing a nutritionally superior, more flavorful grain. Ancient, traditional two- and three-crop rotations enrich soil, use natural water irrigation systems and encourage a normal, fruitful ecosystem that doesn’t require biodiesel fuel sources.
In turn, the method minimizes the footprint and has less impact on air and water quality.
Ryan and Lindsay Meyer of Congaree and Penn Farm and Mills have farmlands in Louisiana and Florida. They began working on their heritage rice cultivation after collegiate studies in Environmental Science and Aquaculture. Ryan worked with Louisiana State University Agriculture department to select and cultivate the heirloom Jupiter rice seeds and purple heritage rice, native to Louisiana, called Blanca Isabella, among other foods.
The Jupiter rice is sold whole, in middlins, grits and fish fry. “It’s so light and crispy, we use it all the time on fish, but it’s perfect for fried green tomatoes or any other fried foods,” Stephanie says. “It’s also good for making roux.”
The young couple’s grains are now featured on more than fifty restaurant menus nationwide — notably, in Seattle, on the menus of Chef Edouardo Jordan, winner of two 2018 James Beard awards: Best New Restaurant, for Junebaby and Best Chef in the Northwest, for Salare. Chef Jordan, a Florida native, embraces his African-American Southern roots and fancifully features Southern grains in such dishes as Gulf shrimp with Geechie Boy grits, preserved cauliflower and red sauce.
Anson Mills is a South Carolina-based granary specializing in the production of a dizzying variety of heirloom corn, wheat, buckwheat, rice and oat grains, among other foods. Seedsman and founder Glenn Roberts began by conducting extensive research and working with geneticists to revitalize the infamous Carolina Gold rice and Carolina Gourdseed White, an Antebellum-period corn prized for its floral notes and creamy texture.
To maximize flavor, the company uses the cold milling method: Chill everything to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and mill in a CO2-protected stream to eliminate the potential for oxidation.
According to Roberts, the sky’s the limit for this industry. And he should know. For the past 20 years, he has worked to grow his farms and now produces over 4,500 varieties of heirloom organic grains now served in restaurants worldwide, revitalizing Colonial South “Carolina Rice Kitchen” cuisine.
“The industry is moving away from yield-focused, nanotech breeding and toward conventional nutrition and flavor-based, extensive crop-rotating breeding methods,” Roberts says. “This is evident in the expansion of acreage, from six-foot-by-six-foot experimentation to 1,200 acre crop experimentation in current scientific grain studies.”