Harvesting our heritage in heirloom grains

Red fife, spelt and kamut are some of the ancient grains making a comeback on shelves

You may think ‘red fife, purple barley and black einkorn’ sounds like an ancient Irish folk group but in fact they are a different sort of ancient altogether.

They are heritage or heirloom grains that have a long history here in Canada and are breeding interest for their numerous sustainability, health and taste benefits.

Although these may be new to your lexicon, other ancient grains like spelt and kamut, are becoming much more common place.

Over the last 25 years, the slow food movement has helped raise awareness about our loss of connection to how our food is grown, processed, cooked and consumed. This has led to a return to our roots and an exploration of the food that was grown and consumed generations ago, before the industrial food revolution of the mid-20th century.

This concern is based not only in social and environmental terms, but also proposed health consequences of consuming single varietal, hybridized crops chosen predominantly based on performance in the field, container or refrigerator, not in your body.

Modern wheat has gained much interest lately, likely the result of the low-carb then gluten-free diet explosions that shed light on heavily refined grains, mostly wheat, and their deleterious effects on our health.

But are these ancient grains, like spelt, kamut and red fife gluten-free? No. Could they be tolerated by someone with non-celiac, gluten-sensitivity? Quite possibly.

Research has been emerging that shows a different gluten content in some of the ancient wheat varietals, like red fife. Although it is still wheat and still forms gluten to provide structure to baked goods, the ratio of the 2 sub proteins, gliadin and glutenin, is much different than in our modern wheat.

Red fife is certainly making a comeback and can be seen in numerous new breads hitting grocery shelves.

Red fife traces back to a 19th century Ontario farmer, David Fife, who got a Ukranian Halychanka wheat seed from a European visitor and started producing the best wheat in Canada, well-adapted to the climate. It remained the cream of the crop until the turn of the century when new hybridizations created from red fife took over and led us to our current common wheat.

Red fife flour is renowned for its milling and baking properties, producing a stone ground, whole grain product that has improved moisture and crumb. This flour is becoming more available and is in demand by Canadian consumers hoping for history and health in their baking.

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