One Baker’s Quest to Harvest Heritage Grains
This article originally appeared in Plate magazine, written by Molly Each, 08.27.15
Baking requires patience and attention to detail. But Ellen King, co-owner/head baker of Hewn bakery in Evanston, Ill., is taking both traits to new levels with the Midwestern Bread Experiment, a three-year plan to revive and bake with lost heritage grains. If she is successful, King will be able to make bread that hasn’t been tasted in 100 years.
According to King, as railroads expanded to the countryside in the mid-19th century, farmers started to combine all of their wheat when they brought it to market to have it milled. “That’s one way we started to lose the connection between the farmers and the wheat,” she says, adding “after World War II, they created all these different hybrids and manufactured wheat that would grow really well with fertilizers and pesticides and large machinery. It was all about increasing the yield.” Heritage grains virtually vanished from the agricultural landscape, and now, seeds are nearly impossible to find.
Field of Marquis wheat
King — who co-owns Hewn with business partner Julie Matthei — began the grain endeavor in 2014, teaming up with Andy Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farms, which specializes in ancient and heirloom grains. The duo decided to collaborate on a heritage variety, and King immersed herself in research, with help from Stephen Jones at Washington State University. Jones, a grain scientist who runs the Bread Lab, grows 10,000 different kinds of wheat. To find out what would grow well in the Midwest, “he directed me to old farming journals [from 1915-1925] at the University of Madison,” King says. “That’s how people used to do it; keep journals and write, ‘Red Calcutta seed grew really well today.’” She showed her findings to Hazzard, who managed to track down Marquis wheat seeds, a blend of Red Calcutta and Red Fife that was grown predominantly in Canada, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. “I started researching it, and it’s said that it’s a really good bread flour,” King says. “But what was bread baking at the turn of the century? Our flavor palate is completely different. We have access to sugar, we have access to so many other flavors. So it will be interesting to see how it tastes.”
Harvesting Marquis wheat by hand
King and Hazzard purchased 2.5 pounds of Marquis, planted it in April, and just harvested the first batch. “We couldn’t use a combine or anything because it’s such a small amount,” she says. “So we actually hand-harvested it with scissors. We literally had scissors and we cut down the wheat.” They’ll replant this year’s seeds, and if all goes well, next year’s harvest will yield enough for a bit of baking experimentation. By 2017, King hopes to have enough to start regularly using it in her bakery. “That’s why once you lose these seeds, it’s not like you can grow acres and acres. You have to rebuild the seeds. This is how wheat used to be. You would walk through the fields and you would snip the ones that were growing the way you wanted them. We’ve gotten so far removed from that because everything is so engineered, farmers aren’t out there picking the best.”
The project is the right hands, and not just because of her baking skills: King holds a master’s degree in Colonial New England History, and she has extensive knowledge of past farming practices, including the evolution of grain cultivation and production. She followed her master’s degree with a stint at culinary school and work in kitchens around Seattle. She moved to Evanston and opened Hewn in 2013, where now, King and her team are honing their heritage baking skills by practicing with Wilkin, another heirloom grain. “It’s like a whole wheat, like an Eastern European bread,” King says. “Really dense with great flavor, but totally different. Heavier and earthier. People today wouldn’t think ‘that’s a great bread flour.” She’s doing her best to adjust her baking techniques to suit the unfamiliar wheat. “We added the regular amount of salt, and it tasted totally salty to us – we don’t know why. So next time, we’ll reduce the salt and play with the fermentation time and hydration.”
King and her Marquis wheat
As the Midwest Bread Experiment slowly takes root, King and Hazzard are hardly waiting around. They’re in the very early stages of starting a flour mill cooperative, designed and funded by farmers with an on-site professional miller. “To support this kind of endeavor, we need farmers to have their name attached to what they’re growing,” King says.
“Some of these farmers are just selling their wheat, and it’s getting blended by other millers that are putting their label on it. [Farmers] will be able to create their brand and sell it in the marketplace. ” The co-op also dovetails neatly with King’s passion for history. “It’s bringing back green farming in the Midwest, connecting to our historical roots, and bringing another tradesman into the field: a true traditional miller,” she says. “There’s a real science and art to milling. He’s a master of what he does and all these farmers work with him and their brands are successful because of that. He’s not creating a brand for himself, because he’s only as good as the wheat that’s grown.”
– Molly Each is a freelance writer, editor and storyteller. Find her work at mollyeach.com, and check out her Instagram or Twitter.