Seeking an Ancient Grain

By Paulina Jenney

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On the Table: A Series on Food and Culture Set in Spain

If you’ve never been grocery shopping outside the United States, you might be surprised to know that much of the world does so without ever stepping foot inside a supermarket. If you have, you might now be recalling memories of walking through town with a bag on your shoulder, hopping from the butcher to the bulk store, peeking into the fruit store on the way, waving to the ladies who stand behind the counter while trying to ascertain whether there is broccoli today. The closest bread store to my apartment, Panris, is a franchise that sells bread all over town, its most popular being uniform bland baguettes longer than your arm that you can take home for less than a euro. I count it a small miracle, then, to have actually found my bread guy at the cheese store, when I asked the attendant about the few loaves he had just placed in the window. 

Son unos panes brutales,” he said, which translates the way you would expect, but which I took to mean good. Brutally good. “They’re all made with organic flour from here.” He looked at me with true reverence in his eyes, and I felt as though I had discovered a secret only a select few in the neighborhood knew about. I took home a loaf of bread the color of café con leche and speckled with pumpkin seeds, and from that moment on was dependent on the bread from Miga de Mariana, a bakery in Aviles about 30 kilometers away. This would all be fine, except that Mariana only delivers to Gijon on Thursdays, after I’ve left for school, and the entire delivery is usually sold out before I get back in the afternoon.

The pumpkin loaf I bought from the quesería was sourdough, a type of bread I had until then understood to be a just another white toast choice that goes with eggs at the diner. I since learned that, in fact, all breads exist in the sourdough binary: they are either fermented naturally or they aren’t. You either let your flour mingle with the yeast in the air, breathing what you breathe, the pollen in spring, the salt off the ocean, the expiration of thousands of people walking past your window, or you buy commercially isolated yeast in a packet from the grocery store. Such a disciple I had been made that when I went home for Christmas break, I asked my stepdad, who had recently begun bread-making as a hobby, for a bit of his sourdough starter. I sniffed the jar and carefully packed it in a pile of sweatshirts in my checked luggage, unsure if the yeast, which I correctly suspected at the time would become more of a pet, would make it through customs.

 
Last year, I spent a few horrified weeks reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. In it, he describes the possible future that awaits us should we fail to address the current climate emergency. The scenarios are shocking, even for someone who has studied climate change, and at one point I actually threw my book against the table in despair. However, as a friend and I were talking about it, the part that stuck with both of us, surprisingly, was not about rising temperature but about the history of wheat. The domestication of grain-bearing grasses, and therefore the entire Neolithic Revolution and our species’ turn toward farming, he says, was the worst thing to ever happen to humans. As we learned to plant cereal, humans began to live in denser settlements, devoting more time and energy to the cultivation of food, sparking increased rates of war and disease. We lost our free time, our mobility, and the idea that we could find everything we need at earth’s table. Instead, even as we believed ourselves to be the planet’s sovereign, we hinged our survival on the care and cultivation of one single other species. Quoting Yuval Noah Harari, he says, “We didn’t domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated us.”

As I faithfully weighed out equal parts flour and water every night, it was hard not to feel domesticated by my addiction to bread. Even more so when, pressed for time, I spent five euros to go to Aviles to on a sunny Monday afternoon, just to visit a bakery. I squeezed into the Miga de Mariana ten minutes before it closed for the afternoon. Only a few loaves were left on the wooden shelves behind the counter. I asked about one dark round, and a girl much younger than me explained that it was made of a mixture of whole wheat and escanda, a word I’d seen in various contexts all over town but didn’t know. What’s that? I asked. “Well,” she said, a little perplexed, “it’s the first wheat in the world. It’s traditional in Asturias.” 

Indeed, the word escanda can refer to several different types of wheat, depending on who you talk to. In general, escanda is a word that describes humanity’s first grains: hulled-type wheats that can include both emmer and spelt. Thought to have originated in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago, these domesticated grasses marked the beginning of agriculture as we know it. Then, after almost 8,000 years and vigorous cross-breeding, farmers created a wheat that left the hulls behind in favor of soft, papery husks which separate easily from the grain. Little by little, these “naked wheats” began to replace all others. Today, two types of naked wheat, T. aestivum and T. durum, make up over 95 percent of wheat production, and comprise more agricultural land use than any other crop in the world. Their hulled ancestors were relegated to isolated, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia, places where poor soil quality, high humidity, and steep slopes made cultivating bread wheat difficult. Places like Asturias. 

 
I spent a week with the loaf of escanda I bought from the Miga de Mariana, toasting it for breakfast, slathering it with butter, topping it with eggs and avocado in the afternoon, wrapping up slices to eat plain before a long run in my marathon training schedule. The more I read about escanda, the more I arrived at the conclusion that I was meant to meet the progenitor of all bread; my interest in local food, desire for sourdough, and intense need for carbs combined to lead me to the promised loaf. Yet I read article after article claiming that escanda, once a staple of the Asturian diet, was essentially extinct. When industrial farming arrived on the scene in the 1960s, there was really no need to grow it anymore; other crops and agricultural products (especially beef and dairy) were more profitable, bread wheat was easily attainable and, as in the story of everywhere else, people were leaving the fields to work in the cities.

On the internet, I found a brochure for the “Ruta de Escanda,” a 50-kilometer route that wends through the heart of the old wheat-growing region of Asturias. The brochure looked old; the font was out of date and the people on its cover had big hair and high-waisted pants. Still, a few friends and I rented a car and drove the outlined itinerary, expecting to be enchanted by rural Asturias and the preservation of a small slice of history. Instead, the ethnographic museum where it began had a handwritten sign on the door: now only open to scheduled visits; the antique manual escanda mill lay covered in cobwebs beneath a raised food storage barn. And although it was winter and I knew the seeds should have just been planted, the fields throughout Grado county were all covered in a thick layer of grass and scattered with sleeping cows. It seemed that even the Ruta de Escanda had no escanda left. 

The last stop on the route was a bakery in Las Cruces, which sounds like a town but is really just a crossroads, two intersecting one-lane roads with a few small houses and one big, bright purple building with the word Panadería painted in block letters right onto the wall. I carefully parked the car between sleeping sheepdogs and we stepped into the brisk February afternoon. On the other side of the door, there was a small, tight counter. A woman stepped out from around a corner. “Hola chicos,” she said, and I asked her the most obvious question about what kinds of breads she had, unsure if the absence of escanda on the rest of the ruta would manifest itself here. “Well,” she said to my relief, “we have pan de escanda. Three types. Sweet, with meat, and plain. If you come back in an hour, they’ll be warm.”

The next restaurant was 30 minutes away but we went there for lunch, and when we returned, the air outside the rental car had gone thick and yeasty with sun and the smell of baking bread. Sensing my interest, the baker invited me into the kitchen, where a stand mixer the size of a small bathtub was kneading dough. Two other women stood at a table, rolling bits of chorizo into thin envelopes. In the corner, a brick oven glowed red, a stack of kindling next to its door. This is escanda the traditional way, the same way, she told us, as when they started the bakery over 30 years ago. I asked where the wheat came from. “It used to be grown here,” she said, “but now there’s almost none of it. There’s no interest in farming anymore.” 

Bags of SpeltAstur flour

 
The more I looked for escanda, the more confused I became. Here was a bakery that sold pan de escanda, but it’s located, nearly alone, in a region that doesn’t grow it anymore. Almost everything I’ve read has told me that the wheat is going extinct. Yet, people are talking about heirloom grains, beginning with emmer and spelt, but also einkorn, which my conservative Arizonan stepdad is using to bake his bread, and kamut, a grain supposedly taken from an Egyptian tomb now grown on almost 100,000 acres of land in the North American Great Plains. Ancient wheats are making a comeback, the food blogs say, because their gluten is less-refined and easily digestible. They’re adapted to poor quality soils, resistant to disease, and require fewer fertilizers than their heavily modified cousins. And they provide diversity, which in a changing climate might be crucial to feeding ourselves. In the past few years, high temperatures and late storms have led to low crop yields in different parts of the world. One bad set of conditions could wipe out the single plant on which so much of the world relies. Ancient grains could help. 

It turns out that today the primary commercial producer of escanda in Asturias is SpeltAstur, a company started, like Kamut, with a handful of seeds a group of people was dedicated to saving from extinction. In 1997, only about four hectares of escanda remained in production. Today, SpeltAstur sells its wheat all over the region, including to the bakery in Las Cruces and La Miga de Mariana. It makes sense, then, that anything I can find about escanda published before the turn of the century laments its demise, and everything I can find from the past few years includes it on a list of superfoods.

At the bakery, I bought one of everything except the chorizo roll and, at the last moment, spotted a kilo of freshly milled escanda in a clear plastic bag. In Spanish, the verb for making bread is amasar, to knead. People are drawn to people who amasar the same way people knit together, or garden, or run. “Tú amasas?” The baker asked me. I nodded and she ran to the back to hand me a big fistful of dough straight from the stand mixer, a gift from one baker to the next.

On Friday night, I take my American sourdough starter and rouse it gently with equal parts water and flour. On Saturday, I weigh out a little of the escanda and mix until the flour and the yeast are indistinguishable. I carefully cover the dough with a soft towel and turn off the lights. Sunday morning, I pull a chair across my sunlit kitchen, warming my shoulders with heat from the oven. Woman cannot live on flour and water alone, but on a loaf of ancient escanda, this remnant of a time when humans were only newly domesticated, with the desert air on its breath, part here and part home, I believe I can survive.

A loaf of homemade pan de escanda

 

 

 

Paulina JenneyPaulina Jenney is a Fulbright teaching assistant in Gijón, Spain. She majored in English and environmental studies at the University of Arizona. Her previous blog series, Notes Across the Andes, was published on Terrain.org.

All photos by Paulina Jenney.

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.