Issue No. 69: Undoing Modernity: The Return of Heirloom Grains and Stone Mills

One day, several thousand years ago, the very first would-be farmer was out looking at some wild grains, and she had an idea: what if, instead of eating the healthiest, most robust plants, she carefully harvested them, collected the seeds, and used them to grow healthy plants again next year? The idea worked, and for millennia to follow, farmers saved the seeds of their very best crops to use for next year’s seed. These “landrace” grains like wheat and corn were selected for their hardiness, or their disease resistance, or their flavor—or, more often, all three.

Fast forward to today.

In the last hundred years, we figured out how to speed up the selection process in the lab, and with new inventions like sophisticated irrigation systems and chemical fertilizers to eliminate the need for hardiness or disease resistance, we started to focus on selecting for just one trait: high yield. The new grains were a huge success, if you define success solely as being incredibly high yielding. Within a few decades the old, heirloom grains that had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries were obsolete. Practically everybody switched over to grow the new grains. The heirlooms were only grown by a few secluded holdouts. The focus on yield came with high residual costs, including most of the flavor.

In the last couple of decades there’s been a renewed energy for discovering the heirloom grains that still do exist, thanks in large part to people like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina and Filippo Drago of Molini del Ponte in Sicily. Glenn has spent the last two decades seeking out the grains the American south was built on: the corn and rice that formed the basis for southern cuisine 200 years ago. His grits are made with an old yellow dent varietal of corn that was historically prized for having exceptional flavor and texture. Likewise, Filippo has played a huge role in reviving Tumminia wheat, an heirloom varietal that has been grown in Sicily since the Greeks occupied the island. It’s been preserved for so long because it’s incredibly aromatic: it smells like chamomile, hazelnut, toasted almond. Filippo mills the Tumminia wheat, and he uses the flour to make corkscrew-shaped pasta called busiate. His Tumminia flour is also used at Zingerman’s Bakehouse to make pane nero, the traditional “black bread” of Castelvetrano, the village in western Sicily where Filippo runs his mill.

Glenn and Filippo aren’t the only ones using heirloom grains.

Community Grains in California uses landrace Iraqi durum wheat to make their pasta. Mulino Marino in Piedmont, Italy uses old otto file heirloom corn to make their polenta. I could go on. When you can find heirloom grains, there’s a good chance they’ll have deeper, richer, more intense flavor. You really can taste the difference.

Old grains, old processing.

These days, essentially all of the flour and cornmeal on the market are processed with big machines called roller mills. Roller mills remove the bran and the germ from the grains, which contain fats that would make the flour go rancid over time—but also contain a lot of the flavor. Often, when you find someone who has taken the time and energy to grow an old heirloom grain, they’re also processing it using very old technology. Both Glenn and Filippo use old stone mills for their grains. The stone mills keep the grain intact, preserving more of the flavor.