Growing Ancient Grains in the Var Dedication to Tradition in Provence
Did you know that the word cereal comes from Ceres, that beautiful Roman goddess of harvest and agriculture? Humans have been cultivating grains since time immemorial; even Neanderthals collected them to bake into some reasonably complex dishes (mentioned in the blog post Breaking Bread in Palestine on my website). Grains, olive oil, and wine are the three founding elements in ancient Mediterranean culture, and this, being my second article for Perfectly Provence, means that my next article will be about wine!
Growing Ancient Grains
‘Grain’ legumes or pulses, such as dried beans and peas, chickpeas and lentils, remain a big part of our diet in the Var, yet very few producers still grow them here. A couple of good farmers do chickpeas, and most home growers sport the prized, leafy fava beans, but cereal growers in the Var are such a rarity there is, in fact, but one.
You’ll find a rare gem of a gentleman, Monsieur Bertrand Allais, by long fields of red soil on the high plains of Provence Verte, where his ancient grain crops thrive. Organic farmer, miller and baker, he’ll be stoking a blaze in his little stone bakehouse on Thursday and Friday mornings. Tall, broad-shouldered and most amiable, he throws quarter cuts of pine into an iron-clad furnace that’s been warming the oven above since dawn. Bertrand understands that good things take time. He spends his time most carefully, and I love to steal a little of it occasionally.
Dedicated to Farming
Through an œil-de-bœuf window, morning light slices a great beam across the sombre room. Thick with twinkling, swirling flour particles, this lends a particularly theatrical magic to the scene. The widely domed brick oven above the furnace heats up evenly, rising to 400° C before being lowered back to 280° C to bake the loaves of bread. This takes around four to five hours to reach the right temperature. Meanwhile, the dough rises steadily, and the hours slip by quietly.
Bertrand and his assistants work calmly and precisely. Chit-chat is easy yet sparse, like the stone room with its’ elemental furnishings: a large, wooden dough trough; one high, linen-draped shelving stack on wheels; a parked wheelbarrow of cut wood by the furnace door. A long-handled wooden paddle. All surfaces and tools have been burnished by the implementations of deft, flour-dusted hands over many years, those of Bertrand and his many apprentices. There’s one counter where the risen dough is cut, weighed, shaped, then shelved between folds of floured cloth on the shelf unit, resting for its final proof before its transformation through fire. Like rows of plump, swaddled babes, the loaves smell sweet and full of promise. This scene feels like an ancient ritual or some time-warp vision, but they’re checking the clock, keeping an eye on the temperature, and making their calculations. Around sixty loaves will be baked this morning, some to order that’ll be picked up while still warm. The rest will go to various organic stores in the region. Bertrands Allais’ bakehouse is a beautiful, peaceful space in time.
Originally from a family of northern industrial cerealists, he came 30 years ago to settle and practice organic farming in the Haut Var. He chose this location carefully, knowing ancient grains would prosper well in this terroir. It’s got some altitude for the breeze, and woods shield the fields. Here Bertrand grows spelt, einkorn, buckwheat, Khorasan, lentils and chickpeas to sell as whole grains and flour. He explains that this location gives his grains unique, nutty sweetness. Having treasured them in my cuisine for years, I wholeheartedly agree.
Once you’ve used Bertrand Allais’ flours for baking, fresh pasta, or tasted his pulses, you’ll want none other. You will anticipate the long, spectacular ride up there to get this particular sweet nuttiness, even if you can find them in a local organic store near you! His chickpeas are quite small, yet they deliver a mighty flavour greater than any others you’ve tried. To me, they’re better than candy. Bertrand also grows the best lentils I’ve ever had, one of the best little grains you can eat for your health and pleasure. Bertrand’s shared his knowledge and passion with many apprentices over the years, and an ever-increasing following of culinary and gustatory devotees prizes his exceptional products. Visits are increasing, he tells me with a wry smile. He is not one for the spotlight, as he has much work. But we can’t stop coming to see him.
Tradition in Provence
The grains are milled slowly in his mill, adjacent to the bakery. This renders an exceptional flour which has maintained all the nutritional and organoleptic qualities he’s worked so hard to capture. I’ve never had fresher or better flour. The bran falls away and is collected in big paper sacks. A great vegetal source of protein, bran is less appreciated or used nowadays in cooking. My chickens thrive on it for breakfast. Bertrand gives it to a neighbouring chicken farmer in exchange for firewood to fuel his bread oven. I hope he gets some eggs too!
So why are these flours from ancient grains better than industrial varieties? Because hard wheat generally has more protein than soft wheat. A higher protein level gives your dough more elasticity, which is what you want when making bread. It also provides a great texture to your fresh pasta (pass me those fresh eggs, please). Besides the magical qualities of Bertrand’s wholesome grains, here’s some more solid scoop.
Spelt, or farro grande, has a subtly sweet, nutty, almost herbal flavour. Exceptionally high in protein (13%-14%) yet very low in gluten, it’s far easier to digest than other kinds of wheat. This big, toothsome grain is used a lot for risottos and pilaffs. Its’ flour lends a nice extensibility to dough, but it has less elasticity than most standard wheat varieties. Einkorn is high in protein, too, and contains far less gluten than normal flour. Also known as farro or piccolo farro, its protein quality makes this flour harder to work with in bread-making. It’s best prepared to enjoy as a whole grain and is chewier with a very nutty flavour. Kamut is the trademarked name of the ancient Khorasan wheat variety. Its’ buttery flavour is fabulous for pilaffs and also chilled grain salads. It’s 20-40% higher protein than modern wheat varieties!
I’ve asked Bertrand who else is here in the Var growing cereals, and he says it’s just him. Who knows if the Romans were doing so before him, but today, this farmer is perhaps the last in a region that’s losing much agricultural land to real estate developers. But there is hope because further afield in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, there’s a charter of cereal producers called Agrobio 04.
Concerned with ecology and climate change, they’ve been researching and growing more drought-resistant varieties with higher grain quality, better storage, and finer bread production. They’ve developed local varieties such as La Saissette de Provence, Bladette de Provence, and Touzelle Anon, which render flours of varying flavour profiles. Chefs are very pleased, as are other farmers who appreciate these grains for their generous yields and their particularly abundant straw, which hinders the growth of different grasses and weeds and improves the soil quality. This makes my heart glad to feel Ceres is smiling above Provence! I do think that she shines an especially admirative regard over Monsieur Bertrand Allais and his sweet nuttiness.
Where to find his products? You can find Farines de Bertrand Domaine Rouvière Plane at the weekly Thursday market in Bras.
Where to Find Bertrands Allais Products?
Most Biocoops in the Var, except in Cogolin
Marcel et fils and La Vie Claire in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume
Le Bio Monde in Cannet des mMures
Maison Du Commerce Equitable in Mons Sartoux
Biocoops the Trets and Rousset
And other Biocoops in Marseille