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Amber Waves of Near-Extinct Heirloom Grains

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:13am

Chefs Thomas Keller in California, Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Tom Colicchio in Manhattan, Ann Cashon in Washington,D.C., and Jodi Adams in Boston discovered Glenn Roberts first and chefs nationwide soon swarmed to his heirloom grain mill, Anson Mills, where he harvests and mills near-extinct varieties of organic-grown heirloom corn, rice, wheat, and more, and re-creates ingredients that were in the Southern kitchen before the Civil War. Antebellum-style graham wheat flour. Colonial hand-pound Carolina gold rice flour. Eighteenth-century-style toasted stone cut oats. Fresh native stone-ground sweet mill corn. Rustic new-crop buckwheat polenta. Slow-roasted whole-berry farro.

I Mapquest the address of Anson Mills and hold my breath. Please, please be within my foodshed. And then . . . 224 miles! Yes! Squeaks in under the 250-mile limit! I order the minimum four pounds of grains and they arrive a couple days later, wrapped at first glance like pounds of chopped beef from the butcher and tucked into a small brown box, along with a little note that says to go to the website for recipes, that other recipes will not work with these grains. Why?

I call, thinking I'll get a customer service rep. I'll ask what makes these grains so different that I must use specific recipes. But Glenn Roberts answers the phone.

"Do you always answer the phone?" I ask, surprised to reach him, this grain master to the star chefs, so directly and easily.

"We only have four people here," he answers, so yes, he answers the phone. I'm guessing about 25% of the time. And I get lucky, because he shares with me his passion for preserving and restoring seed diversity, especially with governmental seed banks around the world shrinking, and protecting these heirloom crops from the GMOs that are now present in the upper atmosphere.

As for why I need the special recipes, these grains are fresh-milled and have higher oil contents and different hydration values than what I would buy in the store, so these qualities alter their performance in recipes thereby requiring recipes that cater to their composition. These qualities also have an impact on their nutritional values, and, yes, their taste. Which, of course, explains their popularity with chefs.

Recipes in hand, I set out to make the coconut oatmeal cookies, the blueberry-lemon corn muffins and the parmesan farro. The cookies and muffins are fabulous, but it's the farro I have to give props to. Farro! What is this grain? Who knew about this? Why aren't we all eating this? It is absolutely delicious--nutty, plump, chewy, sweet! And rich in protein, which is now suddenly important to me since, yes, I'm on Day 6 of the vegetarian thing after my recent tilapia experience (see my tilapia post ).

Farro, apparently, is the original grain from which all others derived, that fed the Mediterranean and Near Estern populations for thousands of years. It supposedly has had a resurgence of popularity in Italy, and if my taste-test is any indication, is sure to have one here in the United States as well.

And although Anson Mills has just four employees, Glenn Roberts relies on thirty organic growers in six states (including eight farms in Georgia!)to preserve and grow his heirloom seeds. The only way to save these seeds is to grow them. And the only way to ensure they are grown is to ensure they have a market. So the next time you're in a fancy restaurant and you see Anson Mills grains on the menu, you can feel proud to do your part to preserve our human heritage by ordering them. Or you can order a pound of four different grains for about three or four dollars a pound and don your toque at home.

Go to www.ansonmills.com to find out more, to see great photos (like the one above taken by Roberts' wife, Kay Rentschler), and, of course, to order.
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