(This TasteBuds column originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Sensi Magazine (Denver/Boulder edition)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
Once upon a time, wheat was the “staff of life.” Literally, like civilization resulted from grains. Since the recent Keto, Atkins, Paleo and Whole30 anti-carb campaign, wheat – and its enabler, gluten – are now considered Darth Vader, Cruella DeVille and Vlad Putin all rolled into one.
Humble carbs are viewed as addictive substances and associated with obesity, diabetes, arthritis, allergies, cancer and digestive disorders, not mention the best-selling “wheat belly” and “grain brain.”
It scares me, frankly. Just pondering the possibility of giving up wheat and gluten gives me the shaking heebie-jeebies so uncomfortable that even 100 mg of CBD won’t touch it.
I heart wheat. I love a Hallelujah Chorus of grain-based joys from croissants, flatbreads and French boules to pancakes, crackers and pizza. My toast with jam in the morning is a spiritual experience. As a nationally known pie expert, my idea of a vacation road trip is traveling from bakery to panaderia to boulangerie.
However, as a man of a certain age with some nagging ailments, I am forced to consider the possibility that giving up wheat and gluten might significantly improve my quality of life and general level of bliss.
I started talking to nerdy grain people across Colorado who are intent on changing the way we think about grain. Research led me to some incredibly tasty foods and beverages made from local, ancient and heirloom grains with names like Red Fife, Blue Emmer and White Sonora. The later wheat variety was hugely popular in the 1700s and 1800s in North America and makes beautiful tortillas.
As was the case with craft beer and cannabis, Colorado is clearly leading the way. In Colorado Springs, the Sourdough Boulangerie uses a 350-year-old Italian sourdough starter and organic Einkorn grain in its crusty artisan loaves. At Safta, the acclaimed Denver Israeli eatery, wood-fired ovens produce fresh pita breads made with heirloom flour. An Alamosa brewery offers farm-to-tap ale made only with wheat, yeast, water and hops from one farm and a rare American 100% wheat whiskey is being distilled in Longmont.
My research led me to another undeniable conclusion: I knew squat about wheat, grains and gluten and especially that paper bag of white powder sitting in my pantry since Thanksgiving.
I also learned that wheat and gluten may not be the real culprit behind our dietary woes.
Fooling Yourself with 22 Grain Bread
This may be hard to digest, but Nanna Meyer wants you toss out virtually every grain product in your home … except maybe oatmeal if it’s fresh, whole and organic.
The Associate Professor in Health Sciences at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is one of the state’s foremost authorities on grain and health. Meyer doesn’t want you to stop eating wheat, bread or grain products. She just wants you to cease ruining your body with all the refined crap. That directive especially applies to any processed foods shilling themselves as whole grain, nine-grain or 21-grain.
“Get all of the industrial white four – the pasta, all breakfast cereal, mixes – out and all the whole wheat Pop Tarts and whole-grain pancake mix,” Meyer says.
The whole grains involved have been processed to within an inch of being inert. The flour – made whenever from wheat from wherever – has to be shelf-stable so it is by definition not fresh. “Even the cereals that look ‘healthy’ have absolutely nothing to do with real whole grains,” she says.
The solution is to replace them with whole organically grown grains that are freshly milled. (See Sourcing Fresh Heritage Flour, below)
Nanna Meyer is no hippy-dippy granola aficionado. She founded the Sport Nutrition Graduate Program at UCCS. As an athlete she says she saw the impact eating organic whole grains had on her own performance and that of the Olympic athletes she has advised.
The University of Chicago reports that celiac disease affects only about 1% of healthy Americans, although many are undiagnosed. Several million more of us have sworn off gluten, but a study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of those who said they were gluten sensitive could actually tolerate it under the right circumstances.
“We don’t have all the answers yet. What we do know is that clearly our diets are deficient in fiber and other nutrients and overprocessed industrial wheat negatively affects our gut health,” Meyer says.
Sourdough bread – made from freshly milled ancient and heirloom whole grains – is definitely on Meyer’s menu. “Once the flour gets fermented it is much more digestible. It makes the nutrients more available and some people who have gut sensitivities can enjoy bread and other grain products,” she says.
Farm-to-Table Wheat: The Final Frontier
Meyer preaches “grain literacy” for everyone. She is the guiding force behind the Grain School at UCCS to build support for growing ancient and heritage grains in the Western mountain states and has recently helped create a new organization, the Colorado Grain Chain. The members include family businesses producing grain and grain products from heritage, ancient and locally-adapted grain including farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers and nationally acclaimed chefs.
“Grains are the final frontier of the farm-to-table movement, says Mona Esposito. The Boulder -based “Grain Lady” became a passionate whole grain educator, advocate and consultant while trying to bake the best possible bread for her family for 15 years. She has helped to spearhead the Colorado Grain Chain
“Think about coffee. There was a time when almost nobody thought about coffee and didn’t know where their ground coffee came from. People just haven’t made the connection with grains, yet,” Esposito says. She offers well-researched information about wheat, grains and gluten for consumers at thegrainlady.com
Down on the Farm
Nanna Meyer knows the farm side of this equation because she is married to Dan Hobbs, owner of the organic Hobbs Family Farm east of Pueblo near Avondale.
“In the late 1800s there were more than 200 distinct varieties of grains grown in Colorado and New Mexico. Now there is just a handful,” says Hobbs who teaches at the Grain School.
He is three years into testing 20 heirloom and ancient wheat, rye and barley varieties. “We are trying to find the sweet spot in a variety between yield, nutrition needs and water use to survive the dry years,” he says.
Hobbs says there are a lot of unanswered questions for Colorado farmers like him, such as whether you will pay more for heirloom grains the way you do for organic cantaloupes. The reality is that a well-marketed acre of Pueblo chilies can bring in $10,000 while even a premium, 50 bushel-an-acre price for wheat may only yield a farmer $3,000, he says.
Farm-to-Loaf Toast and Gluten-free Whiskey
Chef Kelly Whitaker has had a single-minded focus on milling his own whole grains since he first started cooking.
“Roller mills take all the nutrition out of grains as it grinds them and then nutrients have to be added back in to the flour. No wonder people feel better when they stop eating it, but our bodies are meant to consume grains,” Whitaker says.
At Dry Storage, Whitaker’s new Boulder café and bakery, eight varieties of grain including heirloom Rouge de Bordeaux and Ryman rye specifically grown for Whitaker are milled into flour almost every day. Whitaker says they are used for pizza at his award-winning wood-fired Basta and noodles for Denver’s Wolf’s Tailor. Dry Storage serves a flight of heirloom toast and offers the varietal flours in reusable jars.
Nearby in Longmont, 100% Colorado Antero Wheat Whiskey, one of the nation’s only single grain wheat whiskeys – is distilled by the singularly local Dry Land Distillers. “We didn’t set out to use heirloom grain. We wanted a grain well-suited to Colorado and it happened to be heirloom,” said Nels Wroe, co-founder of the Longmont spirits company.
Antero was developed by Colorado State University to be low-water, low-maintenance, and relatively high yield. Wroe’s wheat is grown at Arnish Farms near Keenesburg.
“Heirloom varieties are more expensive and they are really finicky, but it’s worth it. Antero makes gorgeous whiskey. It starts of a silky sweet clear moonshine and gradually mellows,” Wroe says. And, it is gluten-free, since the offending protein is distilled out.
The Farmer, The Chef and The Baker
Eric and Jill Skokan own the 425-acre certified organic Black Cat farm in Niwot that supplies CSA members, their Boulder Farmers Market booth and the two Boulder restaurants: Black Cat Farm Bistro and Bramble & Hare.
Among the crops being cultivated this year are White Sonora, a Swiss rye that has been cultivated for 1,200 years, and ancient Khorasan wheat. “That’s the ancestor of durum wheat used for pasta so we’ll make fettucine served with simple things from the farm, like smoked guanciale from our pigs, English peas and charred onions,” he says.
“These grains can be delicious and at the same time feed the soil. It’s not often that you get to have your cake and eat it too and make the world a slightly better place over time. We can also revive forgotten foods,” Skokan says.
Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co. uses 100% organic heirloom wheat milled daily onsite in all its artisan loaves and baked goods like the celebrated, super-buttery kouign amann pastries. Varieties of fresh heirloom flour comes packaged in throwback cloth bags.
“For too long we have gotten our grain and flour from unknown places. It’s grown and all goes off to the same silo. I wanted to know the wheat farmer just like I know the farmers who grow the vegetables my family eats,” says Moxie owner and James Beard award nominee, Andy Clark.
It’s not as easy as just switching brands of wheat. “You have to find a supply first or a farmer who will grow it. People think I’m nuts for using heirloom wheat and doing a long, slow fermentation,” Clark says.
“What we’re hoping is that we can start growing and using grains that humans can eat again,” he says.
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at kgnu.org).
Other Colorado heirloom treats: Bread, beer, whiskey and pasta
Grain bowls, breads and baked goods: Clyde’s gastropub open to the public at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs features a “food next door” celebrating locally-sourced meat, produce, cheese and grains. uccs.edu/diningservices
Wheatverly Ale: Made only with wheat, yeast, water and hops grown at Colorado Farm Brewery, Alamosa. cofarmbeer.com
Four Grain Straight Bourbon: A.D. Laws Whiskey House in Denver distills a beautiful bourbon from Colorado-grown corn, wheat, rye and barley. lawswhiskeyhouse.com
Fusilli: Pastaficio in Boulder makes pastas from house-milled emmer, red fife and einkorn wheat. pastificioboulder.com
Whole wheat sandwich loaf from a home “cottage” baker using wild-caught yeast and local stone-ground grain milled to order by Wild Things Artisan Baked Goods, Thornton, wildthingsabg.com
Ancient grain loaf: Nightingale Bread in Colorado Springs house-mills heirloom organic grains for their sourdough breads, pastries and pizza. nightingalebread.com
Information on Heritage Grains
The Grain Lady: thegrainlady.com
Colorado Grain Chain: coloradograinchain.com
Grain School: uccs.edu/swell/grain-school
Noble Grain Alliance: noblegrainalliance.org
Where to source fresh Colorado heirloom grain flour
Once you taste something made with freshly milled flour – heirloom, organic or whatever – you won’t want to bake or cook with anything else. Even at twice the price, heirloom wheat flour will still be the cheapest ingredient you use. Think of it like fresh herbs and tomatoes – buy it fresh and only as much as you’ll consume soon.
Besides Moxie Bread Co. and Dry Storage in Boulder, heirloom and native Colorado grain and flour is often available at Denver metro farmers markets.
Grains from the Plains: Limon grower offers wheat berries and freshly milled flour: Colorado Windy White, Rustic Red and Turkey Red. grainsfromtheplains.com
Pastificio: The Boulder pasta maker sells the freshly milled heirloom flours they use for their pappardelle. pastificioboulder.com
Aspen Moon Farm: The Hygeine farm produces organic Turkey Red and Red Fife wheat berries and flour. Also: Floriani red flint corn for polenta. aspenmoonfarm.com
Mill it Yourslf: Aspen Moon Farm recommends the counter-top, blender-sized Mock Mill to make fresh flour (mockmill.com).
The number of acres in Colorado devoted to growing wheat. That’s an area larger than the state of Delaware.
– Colorado Department of Agriculture