The Art of Sharing Bread: A Winter Tradition
Companion. It’s a term that carries weight. If you call someone your companion, it symbolizes partnership, respect and a mutual trust. It used to be that if someone shared his bread with you, it sealed a similar camaraderie, which is why the term translates from its Latin and Old French origins to mean together with bread or one who breaks bread with another. Perhaps this tradition of sharing bread began inside during the long dark hours of winter, and the individuals passing the grainy loaf were brought together by the local harvest’s encouragement for conversation around the table. Through this ritual, communities have been able to cultivate fundamental values that support the collaboration of united regions, values that are part of the dialogue surrounding a staple food of these relationships: wheat. It may not seem obvious due to the abundance of bread and other wheat products available to us on a daily basis, but the past two years have proven especially difficult for New Hampshire farmers to grow wheat, one reason being the presence of a wind-blown wheat disease called Fusarium. The disease, which is devastating to the crop, results in bleached or sometimes pinkorange spikelets, shriveled heads and death of the plant. Our climate doesn’t provide much solace to the problem, as the disease prefers the humidity and moisture characteristic of New England summers. Even with no disease present, our unpredictable weather is not ideal for the flowering season, which typically occurs May into June. With plenty of rain just this summer, our climate creates nerve-racking working grounds for New Hampshire wheat growers. Despite these obstacles, some New Hampshire soil is still supporting the valuable plant.
The Root Seller in Nottingham is one local farm successfully growing winter wheat. Owner and farmer Dan Comte chooses to keep his business small, planting his wheat as a cover crop in late October and harvesting it as a cash crop through mid-July. Nearby farms have not had such great luck this year, some losing large yields of crop. The Root Seller attributes their success to simplicity.
“For us, wheat has been a cover crop that pays a little back. I don't get too concerned about maximum yields, and I plant organically. From what I understand, planting more thickly and fertilizing may increase yields but also creates an environment that can harbor disease and lush conditions that can cause the crop to lodge (fall over before harvest).”
Just as the table is reserved for a small gathering of people, Comte’s farm is reserved for the small but lively crop that provides in humble quantity. The optimistic farmer says he thinks the next step for his business will be to sell his winter wheat to local microbreweries interested in switching from barley to wheat for beer brewing.
Peg Loughran and Allie Kaplan-Thompson, bakers at Sunnyfield Brick Oven Bakery in Tamworth, are supporting New Hampshire wheat in a different way: they are grinding it into flour. Owning a grinder in New Hampshire is rare, as the equipment is costly. The decision to buy the table-top grinder, for Peg and Allie, was part curiosity, part opportunity, two factors that have created a great balance for the diverse bakery and the surrounding community.
The pair hopes to cultivate relationships with New Hampshire farms in coming years and get them involved in their flour production by using locally grown wheat. “We are committed to local flour tradition,” says Peg. Currently, the bakery supplements the small portions of their homemade flour with the larger portions of flour they buy from Meunerie Milenaise, an organic mill in Quebec.
One challenge Peg and Allie have discovered after baking with regional ingredients is that the end result is always unpredictable. “Once the ground flour is in hand, there are so many variables that contribute to a different product each time,” says Allie. Contributing factors range from using a variety of wheat grown on different farms to the fluctuation in growing, harvesting and storing conditions, largely due to New England humidity. The two say the inconsistent products can be surprising, especially if you’re expecting each loaf to come out looking and feeling the same as the last. Nonetheless, the experimentation process has been very exciting.
Although wheat has made a point to stay regardless of disease and hardship, there are plenty of wheat alternatives, and almost all can be ground into flour. These include: Quinoa (related to the spinach/ beets family), hemp, buckwheat (actually related to rhubarb, despite its misleading name), barley and arrowroot. An unexpected and incredibly nutritious wheat alternative is acorns. Before the introduction of wheat grains, acorns were consumed as a popular source of fat and carbohydrates, the bitter tasting nut existing in the history of human diets for years.
Spelt is much gentler on the digestive system than bread wheat and therefore has been called a wheat alternative, but genetics show it is actually a naturally occurring hybrid between two types of domesticated wheat and goat-grass. The ancient grain has acquired fame lately as a health food, packed with important dietary vitamins and minerals, as well as a necessary balance of fat, carbohydrates and protein. Due to its mostly unaltered state and lengthy preparation, spelt is twice as expensive as bread wheat. Even during times of magical allegory the mysterious species was valued: It was through the gift of Demeter, Greek goddess of fertility and harvest, that spelt was first introduced and shared among the Greek people.
Whether it be mythology or a wholesome edible borne from local harvest, the serving and sharing of regional crops continues to benefit table and community dialogue. Joining together over a similar appreciation for where our food comes from not only feeds our bodies, but also our most precious relationships. As we take cover indoors while the season freezes the soil outside, we will share what the warmer months gave and be thankful for the circles of life that sustain us, especially the one that hugs our table once every seat is filled.