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Author Q&A: Eli Rogosa, "Restoring Heritage Grains"

Eli-Rogosa

Eli Rogosa, author of Restoring Heritage Grains found her calling about two decades ago in the Middle East. Working with farmers in the Fertile Crescent, she came upon a treasure of heritage wheat growing healthily in the stifling heat without chemical intervention.

Consequently, Rogosa started The Heritage Grain Conservancy with the aim to preserve landrace wheat, educate, and ensure that future generations have access to wheat that is disappearing around the world in the face of industrial agriculture.

In addition to her work in preservation, Rogosa manages an artisan bakery on her biodiverse farm. Einkorn, a type of wheat used in her most popular bread, has an ancient lineage, and its different type of gluten is tolerated by many people with sensitivities to modern wheat. Read more from this Q&A with Rogosa and her book’s editor, Ben Watson.


Restoring Heritage Grains explores the biodiversity, culture of farming, and traditions of wheat from ancient times to the present. What is one of your favorite stories about wheat culture or origins from any region of the world?

I have been deeply moved by the work songs of the farmers and bakers who shared seed with me. The songs gave us strong rhythms to work with. I heard hauntingly beautiful songs when we harvested the wheat in the fields, especially in the Balkans. In Tuscany, I participated in a Heritage Wheat Conference. The songs sung there by Nicolas and Laitha Supiot, bakers from Bretagne, the Celtic region of north-west France, were transformative and deeply joyful. Marija Gimbutas, Harvard anthropologist, observed,

‘After many years collecting songs from the farm women in the villages, I started to understand the ancient song, what the song was in the real beginning. People did everything singing. The song traversed the earth. Singing was at the heart of the farm from planting to harvest. The women working hard were happy because they had the song with them. Their belief system was expressed in what they sang in the songs.’

How many species of wheat are there? Why is it important to preserve this threatened biodiversity?

Spanning some 12,000 years since early domestication, wheat has evolved into a vast biodiversity of species and sub-species with thousands of locally adapted landrace varieties within each species. There are about 25 wheat species, but these are a simplified overview of a dynamic, continually evolving, naturally crossing expression of the Triticum genus. Modern researchers cluster the traditional species according to the number of chromosomes; Diploid (14 chromosomes), Tetraploid (28 chromosomes), and Hexaploid (42 chromosomes), within which the diverse species are grouped.

Domesticated diploids include einkorn, and sinskaje (naked einkorn). Tetraploids include emmer, durum, rivet, Polish, Poulard, Khorasan (aka Kamut), Colchis Emmer, Persian, Zanduri, Mirabil and more. Hexaploids span spelt, bread, club, macha, Indian, Vavilovii, and Branched wheats, plus species that are so little known in our continent that they do not have English names yet.

To traditional farmers and bakers throughout history, these wheat species, although rare to us today, were as familiar and beloved as family. They were used in the delicious daily breads baked on the home hearth. Seed-saving not only conserves the rich biodiversity of landrace crops, but a culture of generosity and connectedness to nature.

Landrace wheat is on the verge of extinction. Almost all of the vast biodiversity of wheat species that were staples until the past century has been lost, replaced by genetically uniform, chemically dependent modern wheats. Like the Irish potato, whose dependence on monocropped uniformity caused the devastating famine of the mid-1800s, modern wheat’s uniformity is a disaster waiting to happen. It is as if all the houses in a neighborhood have the same lock. If the robber figures out how to break into one house, he can enter into every house in a flash. Only in this past century, as wheat has been squeezed through a genetic bottleneck of uniformity for the bland flour blends in wonder breads, has the wealth of wheat biodiversity been forgotten.

As we face the unprecedented weather extremes of climate change, new diseases and pests evolve. Genetically diverse landrace wheat populations allow for adaptation through self-regulating, evolutionary systems that echo natural interactions. Stable yields under low-input organic conditions favor the polygenetic resiliences of landraces. Biodiversity is the organic farmers’ key defense against disease, stress, and the weather extremes of climate change.

What is a landrace? Why are landrace wheats so important today?

The concept of landrace means ‘of the land’. A landrace is not one plant but a race, a population that emerged from wild plants, that has evolved over generations, over millennia, to be well adapted to ancestral lands. Landraces are a living expression of a plant population’s evolutionary and adaptive history of species interaction within its environment and the human culture that shapes it. A landrace not only describes the food crop itself but encompasses the polyculture farming systems of pre-industrial farmers. Traditional farmers grew mixtures, never a single ‘heirloom’ variety. Landraces embody relationships. They are part of a dynamic seed system with humans who select and exchange seed. Traditional farmers exchanged seed with neighbors who had different soils, water, and farming environments, maintaining and enhancing the populations’ biodiversity. A landrace encompasses the social system of seed-saving: the bakers, brewers, and seed-savers who select for their local landrace cuisine. A landrace can only thrive within a community of seed savers.

Landraces carry a Noah’s Ark of wild resiliences, diverse adaptable traits and social values that enable them and us to survive the storms and droughts of weather and social challenges, just as landraces and traditional farmers have survived millennia of natural climate change in the past.

A lot of people now identify themselves as “gluten-intolerant” and have given up products made from wheat or other gluten-containing grains. What exactly is gluten, and why have so many people developed this sensitivity only in recent years?

If you immerse bread dough under running water, the starchy flour will wash away and leave a sticky elastic glob of gluten. Gluten is the protein-rich molecular bond that transforms a mixture of flour and water into an elastic, responsive dough. As dough rises from the air bubbles breathed out by yeast microorganisms, gluten holds the dough together, giving bread its shape and fluffy crumb texture. Gluten is formed in the grain kernel from the nitrogen that a plant absorbs from the soil.

The alarming rise in gluten allergies can be attributed to three inter-connected factors:

  1. The quality of the synthetic nitrogen and other agrochemicals used in growing wheat. Modern wheat is bloated with chemical nitrate-based gluten proteins that are difficult for many people to digest. Monsanto’s Roundup weed poison or glyphosate is sprayed on conventional wheat crops to dry the plant prior to harvest. Roundup not only destroys the beneficial bacteria in the human gut and contributes to permeability of the intestinal wall, but causes autoimmune disease symptoms.
  2. The genetics of how the wheat plant absorbs nutrients and how it produces gluten in the grain kernel. Modern wheat is bred for higher and higher protein and gluten levels. Dwarfed modern wheats are powered by agrochemicals, but stunted roots have lost their evolutionary capacity to biologically transform the synthetic nitrogen into biologically processed digestible protein. In contrast, sun-drenched, majestically tall heritage wheats produce vital, light-imbued phytonutrients that are digestible and nutritious.
  3. The methods used to bake bread. Humankind has co-evolved to digest heritage grain proteins that are sprouted or fermented to make the proteins bio-available. Gluten proteins have to be biologically broken down to be absorbed inside the human body. Human digestive enzymes have not evolved to digest the high levels of gluten in modern wheats. If a chemical nitrogen-based protein is directly absorbed, the person will become ill. The protein lacks a biological transformation. Protein must be transformed from a foreign substance that is unprocessed by biological activity into a human-available substance that is processed by beneficial bacteria in our gut and in the sourdough process. Metabolism starts with the bacteria in active plant roots, is further transformed through fermentation, and completes in the human digestive system’s bacteria.

Restoring Heritage Grains - Eli Rogosa

Restoring Heritage Grains has an entire chapter devoted to recipes and baking with einkorn. What exactly is einkorn wheat? Is it superior from a nutritional and health perspective?

Einkorn is an ancient, almost-forgotten species of diploid wheat from the dawn of agriculture. It is being rediscovered today as a natural alternative to modern wheat. It is higher in protein and minerals than modern wheat, makes excellent breads and pastries, yet is safe for most people who have gluten allergies. Why? Einkorn is not genetically related to modern wheat. All modern wheat evolved from wild emmer wheat, except einkorn, which evolved independently from wild einkorn.

Einkorn has a rich taste and is higher in antioxidants, protein, and minerals than modern wheat. Einkorn’s close association with mycorrhizal fungi in the soil helps it to reach out to a larger area for nutrients. Its wild-like ability to translocate nutrients into the seed translates into an average of 30 percent higher protein, 15 percent less starch, 200 percent higher lutein, 50 percent greater manganese, riboflavin and zinc, and about 20 percent higher magnesium, thiamin, niacin, iron and vitamin B6 than modern wheat. It is higher in protein than quinoa. Plus, it’s delicious.

Which types of heritage wheat do you believe will catch on most among farmers, millers, bakers, and consumers in the years to come?

Instead of focusing on specific heritage wheat varieties, let us strive to awaken an uprising to reclaim our lost heritage of biodiversity. If people begin to realize that hundreds, thousands, of rare treasures are stored in genebanks and a few still alive in remote peasant fields, if farmers and gardeners follow the methods outlined in Restoring Heritage Grains, there can be a transformation of the wheat landscape, and the culture of seed-saving, bread baking, and landrace cuisine.

I am in the beginning of this work. The few landraces that I have restored have just scratched the surface. As an example, if an artisan baker seeks to evoke the authentic crumb and aromas of French bread, Rouge de Bordeaux would be well appreciated. Banatka’s ancestral homeland is Hungary and the Ukraine. I am starting to work with the rare Caucasus wheats, Zanduri and Persian wheat, that are renowned for sublime flavor in their homelands. The world of biodiversity of forgotten old wheats is waiting to be rediscovered.

Just as we understand that artisan wine, cheese, or coffee, have terroir, a taste of the land, landrace wheats will be valued for their unique history, the farmer who grows them, the taste of the land, the skill of the miller, and the arts of the baker. As we restore our heritage of landrace wheat, the potential to reinvigorate wheat terroir can bring baking bread to a culture closer to European baking traditions.

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Restoring Heritage Grains

The Culture, Biodiversity, Resilience, and Cuisine of Ancient Wheats

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