This is almost certainly the last newsletter before I take a holiday break. Whatever you’re doing, I hope you have a good time. I know I will.
You may have seen some news that a team of researchers in Germany and Switzerland claim that “[m]odern and old wheat varieties taste equally good”.
It depends, of course, on what you mean by “old”.
Among other goals, the researchers set out to “evaluate whether bread baked from modern wheat varieties differ (sic) in terms of aroma from those baked from old varieties”. To do that, they made bread from old and new varieties of wheat. The old varieties were released between 1962 and 1999. The modern varieties were released between 2005 and 2014.
In other words, the oldest of the old varieties is just 57 years old.
I have absolutely no argument with the conclusion that expert assessments, based on “the gold standard of bread characterization in Germany”, find no significant differences between the old and modern wheats in this study. I do argue with the idea that, at least when it comes to wheat varieties, 57 years old actually is old.
To be clear, I have not myself tasted or baked with any of the really old wheat varieties, such as Red Fife or Turkey Red, that other people rave about, so I cannot say whether 200-year old wheats are inevitably tastier than modern wheats. Surely, quite aside from the familiar foodie trope that older=better, there has to be a reason why they all rave so positively. Or does there?
I bake extremely tasty bread using exceedingly modern varieties and I agree with most enthusiastic bakers that the biggest single contributor to flavour in bread is time. Use far less leavening than the recipe calls for, leave it to ferment until it is enough, and the taste of the bread will be much better.
What I’d really like to see is a study of modern wheats versus truly old wheats under a range of fermentation timescales.
p.s. The research in that paper goes way beyond the “old” vs new comparison that got all the traction. The rest of it contains some sound results to guide future breeding, should that be needed.
Kluyveromyces lactis is one of the few yeasts that can feed on lactose, and it plays an important part in the fermentation of milk into cheeses and yoghurts. There are two subspecies of K. lactis, one that lives in milk and one that lives on Drosophila flies. The one that lives on flies cannot feed on lactose. The one that lives on milk, unsurprisingly, can.
How it developed that ability is a complex story, involving a fly drowning in milk that already contained a different species of Kluveromyces. The lead researcher who uncovered the story explains:
When K. lactis arrived with the fly, its cousin K. marxianus was already happily growing in the milk. K. marxianus is able to use lactose for growth because it has two extra proteins which can help break down lactose into simple sugars that it then uses for energy. The cousins reproduced and the genes needed to use lactose transferred from K. marxianus to K. lactis. The end result was that K. lactis acquired two new genes and could then grow on lactose and survive on its own. The fermented product that K. lactis made must have been particularly delicious as it was used to start a new fermentation – a routine that has continued to the present day.
It pleases me to think that early pastoralists domesticated yeasts as well as goats and sheep.
The feast …
was served to the diners on the same plate and the dominant colour of the meal was beige, as it would have been in Etruscan times. … The offerings included chickpeas with cumin, fennel and defrutum, a light fruit syrup; seasoned fish with asparagus; rough-ground pork sausages smoked in hay and goat’s-cheese cakes flavoured with honey and lavender. Overall, the flavours are more redolent of contemporary Middle Eastern cooking than of today’s Italian fare.
Farrell Monaco, after considerable research, cooked up an Etruscan Banquet, served “on a balmy, starlit night … [in the] inner courtyard of Castello di Potentino, a medieval castle in southern Tuscany”. How do I know? John Hooper, The Economist’s correspondent in Italy, was there and wrote about the feast and the burgeoning field of gastronomic archaeology.
Two terrific compilations of food in art: Paintings of breakfast and Paintings of lunch. If you’re still casting around for a suitable gift for anyone into food or art or both, I highly recommend Gillian Riley’s book A Feast for the Eyes, subtitled Evocative recipes and surprising tales inspired by paintings in the National Gallery.
One day, maybe, I’ll actually get around to doing the food and art book I’ve long had simmering on the back burner.
I like his comment:
The irony of playing “Africa” with food is incredible. To make up for it, please go help out some people after watching this video.
If I were in charge of public awareness for an organisation that promotes orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes as an important contribution to nutrition in Africa, I’d sign him up pronto.
OK, that’s it for 2019. I’ll be back in the new year. Thanks for being here. And if you would like to give me a little something, you can do so easily. Alternatively, persuade a friend to sign up to the podcast and this newsletter.
All the best,
Breads by BeckaBeck
Walter Crane’s Ruth and Boaz (1863) from Wikimedia