Recently I had the unique privilege of obtaining a sneak preview of an initiative that may revolutionize the farming of grains in our region.
Spearheaded by researcher and biodiversity farmer Elisheva Rogosa, the initiative seeks to revive the cultivation of heirloom strains of grains grown in the Middle East since biblical times. Surprisingly enough, the commercial demand for such grains is not local, but instigated by European markets. French researchers and bakers are teaming up with Israeli and Palestinian organic farmers as part of an international effort to develop a wheat supply with resilience to survive the unprecedented weather extremes of climate change.
The irony is that Israel imports most of its wheat from the United States, Russia and Europe, while the ancient species of wheat indigenous to our region – having superior flavor, nutrition and baking quality – are grown neither locally nor commercially.
Since famed Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronson’s 1906 discovery of Triticum dicoccoides, (also known as the “mother of wheat”) in the northern Galilee, these hardy survivors of millennia still grow wild in remote fields and are cultivated to a limited extent by small, mostly Arab villages. They are unfortunately on the verge of extinction, being replaced by modern, genetically engineered, dwarf varieties of wheat that rely on modern agrochemicals to survive.
Rogosa, working with the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian plant gene banks, has accumulated a large collection of landrace wheats, many that are almost extinct, which she grows and maintains on her organic biodiversity farm in the US.
The first stage in the initiative is to multiply the heirloom seeds by controlled growing in selected sites around Israel for the purpose of expanding the seed base until enough seeds are available for commercial cropping that will then be exported, mostly to European markets.
As you may know, Europe, unlike the US and Israel, has banned the growing and use of genetically engineered crops and is actively looking for healthier, organic alternatives to modern wheat farming. This search has brought researchers back to the “cradle of civilization” in search of the grains of old.
Interestingly enough, the Europeans are not interested in growing these antique strains on European soil, but rather in having them grown here in their indigenous environment; and in importing them.
Such a scheme has numerous benefits for local farmers who, with limited land at their disposal, may grow niche crops that fetch a higher market price than regular wheat. Unable to compete with the US and Russia for sheer volume, growing sought-after, higher quality grains in their indigenous environment affords local farmers a competitive edge, specifically in the European market.
The local market will benefit from higher quality grains grown locally and ultimately you, the consumer, will benefit from a healthier food base.
After spending some time with the people involved and observing the dynamics, it is enlightening to see how political considerations fall by the wayside when it comes to matters of the earth, the Israeli and Palestinian participants finding a common thread that transcends all boundaries.
This exciting initiative holds much promise – economic, social, political and health related – and it is the author’s fervent hope that it will succeed.
SPICED BARLEY BREAD
Barley as a grain remains untouched by the centuries and modern genetic engineering, closely resembling the barley of antiquity.
This delicious bread made with a mixture of barley and wheat flour (pure barley flour is too low in gluten to hold its form) heralds the “season of harvesting” with a spicy twist.
✔ 1½ cups barley flour ✔ 1½ cups whole wheat flour ✔ 1½ cups water ✔ 1½ tsp. powdered instant yeast ✔ 2 tsp. salt ✔ 1 pinch turmeric ✔ 1 pinch granulated garlic ✔ 1 pinch ground cilantro ✔ 1 pinch zaatar Mix ingredients in bowl and knead for 10 minutes by hand. Leave to rise covered for 30 minutes. Shape into oval loaf and place in rectangular loaf pan to rise for 90 minutes. Bake at 240 degrees centigrade for 35-40 minutes.
Master baker Les Saidel, is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (http://www.saidels.com), specializing in education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. Saidel also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.