Mary Kemp: Don’t take wheat for granted, says Mary

We shouldn’t take ver­sa­tile wheat for granted, says Mary

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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

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