June 18, 2012
Soak grain in water and a seed begins to sprout. Dry out that tiny protoplant, or acrospire, roast it, and you’ve got malt—the basis for fermenting beer (and distilling whiskey too). The process can be crude; soaking can take place in a puddle, drying on the roof of a house. I wrote about the small-scale revival of the malting process, of the more modern variety, in The New York Times last week and it’s curious just how far the process predates the current garage-scale renaissance, the flourishing of regional malthouses in the 19th century, or even the English maltsters who first set up shop on American soil four hundred years ago.
The late historian Peter Damerow, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, published an examination of 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, including a mythic text from ancient Sumerian tablet known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi was the goddess of brewing. In the paper, published earlier this year, he explains that the hymn accompanied “a kind of drinking song” dedicated to a female tavern-keeper. It’s the first recipe, of sorts, for beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles dough (and) … with a big shovel,
Mixing, in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the earth-covered malt (“munu”),
The noble dogs guard (it even) from the potentates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt (“sun”) in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash (“ti-tab”) on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort (“dida”),
Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.
[You ...] the sweetwort (“dida”) to the vessel.
The fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on (top of) a large collector vat (“laÌtan”).
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is (like) the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
As archeologist Patrick McGovern has written in Uncorking the Past, the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of a forebear to modern beer some 6,000 year ago, providing a possible motive for a decisive step in the development of human culture and the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Beer may have come before bread. Still, these cuniform tablets are notoriously difficult to translate and leave only a rough outline of the process—so, despite the best efforts to replicate the Tigris-like rush of ancient Sumerian beer today, unanswerable questions about the beer’s exact composition remain. When, for example, did they interrupt the germination of the “earth-covered” malt, a crucial step enabling a grain to undergo alcoholic fermentation?
Damerow suggests there’s reason to doubt whether these brews even proved to be much of an intoxicant 4,000 years ago: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.” Then again, would we really have kept the ancient process alive for so long if it just gave us better nutrition and didn’t also make us feel good?
Image: Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102/Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 2012
May 9, 2012
Milk does the body good. It’s the instructive stuff of life; compounds in a mother’s milk can instill lifelong flavor preferences in her breast-fed offspring. (Meanwhile, infants fed cow’s milk formula may gain excessive weight.) Raw milk enthusiasts claim that cow’s milk is more beneficial if it hasn’t been heated and pasteurized. If Dana Goodyear’s recent story in The New Yorker (subscription required) is any indication, this vocal minority’s claims about a milky unpasteurized panacea is increasingly getting mainstream attention.
The raw milk trend has a certain appeal among libertarians, such as Ron Paul, who view the fight against food regulation as a symbol of freedom. But what’s curious about this movement is that Goodyear (and presumably The New Yorker’s estimable fact-checkers) found only one scientific study to support claims about the immune-enhancing properties of raw milk: the GABRIELA study, a survey conducted in rural Germany, Austria and Switzerland and published in October 2011 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The study’s authors found that unheated “farm milk” contained a protective protein, although it could only partly explain the reduced rates of asthma. Raw milk might be one variable in a web of confounding factors. (After all, the children lived in rural homes, not in sterile labs.) The authors found no association between the bacterial counts in milk and a child’s health; they also couldn’t say whether those samples were representative of a child’s long-term exposure, nor could they rule out the effects of microbial exposure on a child’s developing immune system.
Perhaps raw milk represents a subset of post-Pasteurian activism opposed to our culture’s blanket war on germs. Since about 1989, when David Strachan advanced the “hygiene hypothesis,” an increasing body of evidence links chronic underexposure to germs and microbes to lasting health consequences. The idea is that encountering low levels of nonthreatening stimuli trains our bodies to fight potential allergens and, without such exposure, our immune systems malfunction. Just last week, a group linked the lack of biodiversity in urban areas for a “global megatrend” in allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases.
The health benefit of raw milk remains speculative and its risks remain high—milk is an excellent medium for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. But the GABRIELA study may hint at something else: the health halo of a nostalgic, if apocryphal, place. What little scientific research there is came from the Alps—a sort of Hunza Valley of the West—a place seemingly removed from the ills of modern society, home to Heidi and the curative powers of her grandfather’s goat’s milk (an idea in Nathaneal Johnson’s blog and forthcoming book, The Heidi Hypothesis). Then again, when has the quest for pure, natural foods really hinged on rational arguments?
April 23, 2012
Long before hops plants form their long, sticky cones, the plants send up a little shoot. I picked a handful of these shoots from my dad’s hop bines last week (yes, they’re called bines, not vines). While no international price index charts the prices of vegetables, hop shoots are considered among the world’s most expensive vegetables, commanding a far higher price than prized white asparagus. (This back-of-the-envelope calculation excludes saffron, which is a crocus stigma and not a “vegetable” per se; the other contender, white truffles, are fungi.)
Hops, the bittering agent in most beers, is one of two common commercial species in the cannabaceae family—ironically, the one of lesser value. Unlike the other, marijuana, hops are considered legal and their shoots edible. In Belgium, these hopscheuten are cultivated under glass or in dark rooms, since the shoot turns green and develops a harder, rope-like consistency when it emerges outdoors.
In Elizabeth David’s 1969 essay “Bruscandoli,” collected in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, she writes about the fleeting pleasure of Italian risotto and frittata made with hop shoots, which also go by the names wild asparagus, bruscandoli, luppoli and jets de houblon. “Because they were so very much there one day and and vanished the next,” she writes, “bruscandoli became a very sharp and poignant memory.”
After hop plants become established, it’s necessary to thin their bines. A few years ago, in 2009, I called Puterbaugh Farms, a hops grower in Washington that pickles hop shoots in much the same way you’d make dilly beans. “We go out and trim the hop shoots in the spring,” Diana Puterbaugh told me. “I guess you call it a waste product.”
What’s curious is that the use of hops as a mildly bitter spring green predates hopped beers, the first record of which dates to around 822 A.D. Nearly 800 years earlier, Pliny the Elder said Italians ate the wild Lupus salictarius, although he wrote, “these may be rather termed amusements for the botanist than articles of food.”
March 22, 2012
Douglas Gayeton, the author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, has been exploring the principles of sustainability through photography, taking abstract concepts and turning them into annotated infographics—or “information art.” It’s part an ongoing series called The Lexicon of Sustainability.
The images convey invisible or purposely obfuscated ideas related to food, and the concepts are explained by the experts themselves, like Elaine Ingham (above) translating soil science and microbiology for the masses. Paul Stamens (in the photo below) explains the concept of myco-remediation. I talked with Gayeton about the project from his home in Petaluma, California.
How did you come up with the concept and what do you hope these images will convey?
Images often leave you asking more questions than providing answers. When I see a photo, what I want to know is not always explained. So, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could include an image and then include all the things that you’d want to know if you were looking at the image?” I began to make images and have people talk about them, essentially describing what’s happening. I really wanted to demystify the language of sustainability.
The process—information art—takes complicated ideas and makes them simple to understand. The Lexicon Project started with food and farming and now it’s looking at climate change and water. We’re starting to get into technical exploration of ideas. It’s almost a formula—in much the same the way in physics that you create a formula to describe an activity or an action in the physical world. That formulaic approach your see—used in physics or math—is the same type of construction that I use for the images. More than a construction actually, these images are a deconstruction of ideas, reducing them to their essence, then trying to find a way to graphically represent them. Somebody once wrote that one of the interesting thing about the work is that it works the way a mind works: If I were to simply give you a piece of paper with a lot of writing on it, you might skim over it; but if I were to take a bunch of ideas and place them on an image, then you are suddenly active in the idea. You’re active in the appreciation of the idea. That activity creates a narrative and makes it easier to retain information. You have more of a deeper connection…. It’s not a passive experience. The active experience of turning the reading of something into it’s almost a game-like quality, I think it allows people to connect more intimately with the ideas and images.
Douglas Gayeton is planning 500 pop-up shows this summer, and anyone can be apply to be curator here.
November 17, 2011
The December issue of Smithsonian magazine features a story about heirloom wheat and the people who grow and bake with it. Eli Rogosa, director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and an artisanal baker, talks about her work in the field and in the kitchen. At the end she shares her recipe for a heritage bread.
Q: Why did you decide to devote your time to heritage varieties of wheat?
A: The silent crisis of the loss of genetic diversity of one of the world’s staple food crops is very serious—and very exciting, because there are still a lot of varieties that are in gene banks.
Q: What is your most memorable experience baking?
A: I’m working with a species of grain called einkorn, which is getting a lot of publicity these days because it’s safe for those with gluten allergies. Einkorn was originally domesticated in the Tigris/Euphrates/ancient Mesopotamian region, which today is Iraq. So I went down to the local Iraqi bakery recently and I said, “Would you like to try this bread in your bakery?” They were really excited, so I brought them some einkorn flour and they baked traditional Iraqi flatbread. They just couldn’t believe it. They said, “This is real bread, this is what it’s supposed to taste like.” The traditional methods that they bake with were the ways that einkorn was baked with for millennia. Now I think there’s five halal stores in the city where I was, Portland Maine. They just want to buy einkorn, so it’s in all the stores.
Q: Are there differences between working with flour milled from heritage wheats and standard supermarket flour?
A: It’s a whole different ballgame to buy from a local wheat grower rather than to buy from the store. The modern wheats are completely uniform. If you buy something from the supermarket, you know exactly what to expect. But if you buy a local variety from a local grower, it’s going to reflect the fertility, the variety, the weather. That explains why breads from different countries are so different.
Q: Can you substitute flour made from heritage grains for supermarket flour?
A: You can substitute. You probably might need a little less water, a little more salt because it’s lower gluten. But I just bake bread normally. I bake bread in the morning for my husband. Instead of doing a lot of kneading, I make my dough the night before and just let it sit and it gets a little bit fermented, like a light sourdough. So I think time is a factor if you make your dough the night before and then bake it the next day. It’s really easy.
Q: How much experimentation does it take before you get a bread recipe just right?
A: I don’t use recipes. I’m a creative baker—it’s easy to bake. I’ve read all the books, but I didn’t learn baking from books; I learned it from illiterate grandmas in Third World countries. Baking is like a natural process. You feel when it works right and follow the dough, and it’s very liberating when you bake by feel and consistency of the dough and not measuring. You have to play around to feel comfortable and familiar with what works.
Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in growing heritage wheats in his or her own back yard?
A: Find a local source for heritage wheat seeds, or contact me at growseed.org, and I’ll send you samples. It’s easy. Wheats are a grass. It’s the easiest crop I’ve grown on our farm. I grow only winter wheat, which means I plant it in September and harvest in July. I find that the winter wheats are better adapted, and in the spring they just shoot up and they compete with weeds, so your weeding pressure is really decreased.
Recipe for einkorn sprout bread, by Eli Gogosa
(Makes two loaves)
STEP 1: ADVANCE PREPARATION
Five days before baking, mix 1 tablespoon (T) non-chlorinated water (spring water, distilled water, well water or rain water, NOT tap water) with 1 T einkorn flour in a bowl. (Both einkorn flour and einkorn grain are available at natural foods stores or from growseed.org. Optional: Add 1 T cultured butter milk to encourage fermentation.) Cover but don’t refrigerate. Each following day, mix in another 1 T einkorn flour and 1 T non-chlorinated water. Keep the bowl at room temperature until the mixture has started to bubble. This is sourdough starter. Two days before baking, soak 1 cup einkorn grain in the non-chlorinated water overnight in a covered bowl. The next day pour off the water. Rinse daily and keep covered. The grains might start sprouting rootlets.
STEP 2: MAKING THE BREAD DOUGH
In a food processor, blender or hand-crank food mill, blend the soaked grains briefly so they are the consistency of chunky oatmeal. Mix the starter, 1 cup blended grain and 4 cups einkorn flour, 1 teaspoon (t) sea salt and 1 3/4 cups warm water. (If you are concerned that you may not have sufficient starter, add 1 t yeast. Optional: For sweeter, festive bread, add some chopped dates and walnuts to taste and 1/2 cup maple syrup in place of 1/2 cup water.) Add more flour if the dough is too sticky or more water if too dry. Knead the dough until it forms a ball that springs back when you poke it. Shape the dough into two loaves—flatbreads, boules or standard bread-pan loaves. Refrigerate overnight in bread pans or on a baking sheet greased with olive oil and dusted with einkorn flour.
STEP 3: BAKING
The next day, let the two loaves warm to room temperature for 1/2 hour. Dust the surfaces of the loaves with einkorn flour. Slash if desired. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Turn down the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the loaves at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the tops of the crusts are golden brown. Turn the oven off, but keep the loaves inside for another 1/2 hour before taking them out.