domingo, mayo 24, 2009

Bread of life

Hélène Zaharia

In their effort to improve the taste and nutritional value of their bread, a group of French paysans boulangers (peasant bakers) are seeking out old varieties of wheat, many of which had not been planted for more than half a century. Experimenting with them, they are discovering that some have unexpected advantages, such as provoking a much lower level of gluten intolerance among consumers than industrialised bread.

Like so many good things in life, it all happened because people began to think for themselves. In different parts of France, small groups of mainly organic wheat farmers have for many years been bucking the trend and continuing to produce good, nutritious bread, despite the growing dominance of the industrial bakeries. Using old-fashioned millstones, they have been grinding the wheat they grow in their fields and, using natural yeast, they have been making their own bread, baking it in traditional ovens. The bread tastes good, so people in the neighbourhood have gone on buying, even when the mass-produced bread has been cheaper.

But recently the paysans boulangers (peasant bakers), as they are called, began to realise that modern varieties of wheat, which was all they could find on the seed market, didn’t really suit their needs. For decades wheat has been bred by the seed companies to respond to the needs of the big wheat farmers and the big industrial bakeries. What these groups want is wheat that has a high yield and a high protein content, and that grows fast by capturing as much soluble nitrogen as possible from the chemical fertilisers added to the soil. But these are not the qualities that the peasant bakers want: they need varieties of wheat that are healthy and disease-resistant; that stand up to different kinds of weather; that are suitable for old-fashioned bread-making techniques; and, last but by no means least, produce tasty and nutritious bread.

Touselle takes off

Henri is an organic farmer in the south of France. In 1997 he was carrying out research into farming practice in the Gare region when he discovered Touselle wheat. It is an early wheat, without whiskers, with a soft grain, very suitable for bread-making. It was once cultivated quite widely in Languedoc and Provence and was appreciated for its good yields, even when it was grown on poor soil in a difficult, dry environment. But by the time Henri became interested in it, it had been widely abandoned in favour of modern varieties.

Henri decided to try it out for himself and obtained a few seeds of four of the 13 varieties of Touselle held in the Department of Genetic Resources at INRA in Clermont-Ferrand. For the first two years, he cultivated the Touselle in his garden and then he decided to try it out in his fields. Gradually, he learnt more about it – how densely the seed had to be planted, how long it took to ripen, how resistant it was to heavy rain, and so on – and his experiments became well-known in the region.
Other farmers began to copy him, and by 2004 Touselle was being grown experimentally on a fairly large number of peasant farms in the south of France. In 2005 the Syndicat de Promotion de la Touselle was founded, with the idea of promoting the production of bread made from Touselle. Eager to back the initiative, consumers set up support groups. Henri then devoted an area of his farm to experiments with other varieties of Touselle brought in by other farmers. Together, they started crossing varieties and developing new strains. All the time Henri was recommending caution, saying that some of the varieties they were using had not been cultivated for many decades and would perhaps require special treatment.

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