Mary Kemp: Don’t take wheat for granted, says Mary
We shouldn’t take versatile wheat for granted, says Mary
As I sit at my kitchen table writing this month’s article I can hear in the background the hum of the combine as it cuts the wheat and see the plume of dust it leaves in its wake across the fields as everywhere is so dry and dusty. Its only August 2 and we have nearly finished harvest, which is quite extraordinary. Thanks to this summer’s incredible heatwave, harvest will have finished a good three weeks early.
Wheat flour has been an important ingredient in our food history. It has been at the heart of revolutions, uprisings and revolts. But it’s an ingredient we often take for granted.
There are hundreds of brands and varieties of flour on the market, some of which have been developed for a specific purpose, but many are versatile and can be used in lots of recipes. Several are grown and milled in East Anglia. The trick is to understand what you want to cook and match the flour to the recipe.
Wheat is sometimes categorised into two types, hard and soft. In general terms, harder wheat has higher protein and gluten levels, which makes flours milled from these varieties perfect for making bread.
The flour from soft wheat varieties are more suited to making biscuits, cakes and pastries. Although soft wheat can make great bread, the texture will be different to the more traditional bread.
Some French bread is made with what they would call soft wheat flour; the lower protein means that the bread doesn’t rise as much.
Strong white flour is best for bread making, with higher protein levels, usually in the region of 12 – 15%. The strength keeps the air bubbles in dough, the higher gluten helps the dough hold and keep its shape. Plain flour – plain because it has no raising agent added – has a typical protein level of 9–11%, making it a general use flour.
One of the flours I love to cook with is spelt; it has a wonderful nutty taste and can be used instead of, or mixed with, more traditional flour. You can equally use it to make risottos and pilafs instead of rice.
Spelt is an ancient member of the wheat family, sometimes referred to as ‘Roman wheat’. It is an evolutionary hybrid of emmer wheat and goat grass. Its high energy content led the Romans to call it the ‘marching grain’.
Spelt is lower yielding than modern wheat. It has a tough husk which protects it, which also means it is still very much in its ancient form and genetically purer. Those with wheat sensitivities can often tolerate spelt but it is not gluten free.
Grains can be bought as whole or pearled spelt and are creamy and brown, it is rich in dietary fibre, thiamin, copper, manganese, niacin and phosphorus, vitamins B2 and 3.
It’s time to prepare harvest teas, a tradition I grew up with and one that brings back wonderful memories of meal times in the fields. Harvest has changed so much, fewer people involved, and the machinery is so different.
No little grey Ferguson tractors or small bales of straw; hi-tech and air conditioning have taken their place, but I am pleased to say a piece of homemade cake and a cup of tea are still very welcome!
ABOVE:A combine at work in Gayton