Against the grain

Area farmers grow heirloom varieties of wheat

Try heirloom types instead, like “soft” Sonora wheat.

Try heirloom types instead, like “soft” Sonora wheat.

Julie Cross directs the sampling, cooking and wine-tasting classes at the Davis Food Co-op.

White bread is boring. White wheat, on the other hand, is about as fascinating as it gets—especially if you’re name happens to be Sally Fox.

Fox is an accidental wheat farmer. She began growing wheat on her farm in 2001, as part of a series of trials that microbiologist Monica Spiller was running for an investigation into the taste of heirloom varieties of wheat. Spiller was working on the theory that modern varieties of wheat aren’t the best tasting available. That’s because they’re grown specifically to be processed with something called a “hammermill,” which removes the bran and germ from the wheat—along with most of the flavor. Since farmers had no incentive for growing flavorful wheat, they selected for other characteristics, like yield and speed of growth.

Unfortunately, that lack of flavor discourages consumers from eating whole-wheat products. Spiller believed that better-tasting wheat would solve that, and decided to grow heirloom varieties of wheat using seed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Seed Bank. Fox offered to lease acreage for the trial and, as a result, grew and tasted Sonora wheat.

Sonora wheat was once one of the most popular wheat varieties grown in one of the biggest wheat states in America—California. In fact, Sonora wheat from California was considered of such high quality that most of it was exported to England. The change to hammermill processing, and the corresponding change to wheat types that grow well in Midwestern conditions, were a factor in the demise of California wheat farming.

Midwestern wheat is generally higher in phytates, which are bitter to the taste, which was an issue for Fox. “I hated whole wheat. It was bitter and awful, and I really preferred spelt. But I went crazy for this wheat,” she says. Fox promptly began growing Sonora wheat for seed, and just eight years later, she estimates that there are at least 15 farmers in the greater Sacramento area growing this variety, including Full Belly Farm, which offers flour from Sonora wheat at farmers’ markets and through their community-supported agriculture boxes.

Fox sells whole-grain wheat berries to the Davis Food Co-op, where it’s available in the bulk section. Recently, Fox has been experimenting with using wheat berries in place of barley, which she declares to be delicious.

Sonora wheat is “soft” or low-protein, perfect for pastry flour. Fox says that Sonora whole-wheat flour is delicious in things like hot cakes, waffles, muffins and even German chocolate cake. “I feed it to people who usually shop at Safeway,” says Fox, “who never eat interesting food, and they notice how good it is.”

Christmas Cranberry Bread

Quick breads are a great choice for low-protein flour, since too much gluten will make them tough. This recipe is a traditional Christmas treat in my family. It makes 2 loaves.

3 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup sugar
3 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup canned whole cranberry sauce
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Mix a little of the dry ingredients in with the orange zest. Toss until zest is coated and bits are separated. Stir into dry ingredients. Mix eggs, butter, juice and cranberry sauce together and pour into the dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly, then stir in walnuts. Spoon into two greased bread pans and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until brown and toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean. Turn out of pans and cool on a baking rack.