There was a time when , crossing the country, the taste of bread would change daily. The fields were home to thousands of locally adapted varities, selected by generations of farmers for taste, nutrition and hardiness. In the1950s the worlds’ wheat crop was transformed. The 6 feet high plants of yesteryear gave way to the knee high hybrid that we think of as wheat today. Dubbed the “Green Revolution”, these new species of dwarf wheat were bred to tolerate huge doses of fertilizers and pesticides and thus increase yield spectacularly. But we now know that this small, distant relative of wheat isn’t really wheat at all. It’s a synthetic ball of pure gluten. Bread started to make us ill rather than sustain us.
So began my quest to find some original varities of wheat. They are no longer for sale. The commercial seed companies have made it illegal for farmers to sell seed to each other and restricted all seed sales to ‘listed’ varities. Funnily enough most of the varities on these lists are seed company hybrids – the characterstic of a hybrid being that you can’t resow it; it has to be bought every year.
It was a fruitless search, until one day an old and hunched ‘paysan’ who runs a little farm machinery museum in a cottage nearby, told be to go and see his even older friend up on the hill who until 30 years ago made bread at the farm and was known for his distinctive wheat varieties. Amid decades of unchecked brambles I found a man in his late 80s, in slippers, bent over a lathe. He was tooling a part for his Citroen to within 1/16th of an inch. The short walk back to the farm house took a long time. In the darkened interior next to a fire over which soup cooked in a hanging pot I explained why I was there. ‘Vous cherchez le vrai pain’ he concluded. More in hope than expectation he took me to his old grain silo. I climed through 3 decades of cobwebs and down into the pitch black interior. There amongst accumlated dust and detritus was a thin layer of wheat seeds. The rats must have decided that the climb out of the silo was too risky to try. I gathered up a couple of handfuls. Together we cleaned it up and as I left he held my outstretched hand firmly in both of his.
When I got the bucket back to the farm, I wondered at the family history of these seeds. From their origins somewhere in the middle east they had slowly made their way west by foot, cart and boat. They may well have been grown by retired roman legionnaires on the Iberian penninsula before being hauled over the pyrenees into Gascony. The Black Prince probably rode past fields of their ancestors and for hundreds of years it would have been the workaday wheat of the local daily bread. Then, quite suddenly in the 1950s, there were no more descendants. Except that a young paysan wasn’t sure about the ‘new wheats’ and continued to sow, harvest and bake with his 10,000 year old lineage. Then he made his last loaf, leaving half a bucketful in the silo that he was too old to clean out. For 30 years they bided their time.
Struck by the weight of history, I put a few grains in an envelope ‘just in case’ before commiting the rest to the earth. I needn’t have worried – they grew into towering plants and over several years I harvested and resowed until I had enough to do many acres and transform it into flour. The envelope is still in the draw at the farm and from time to time I take it out. The grains are a humbling reminder that we’re just passing shadows in nature’s never ending saga.