What's the oldest kind of grain still available?
The ancestral varieties are emmer, spelt, einkorn and khorasan. (Some refer to khorasan as "Polish wheat," although we've also heard that these are two different varieties.) The Heritage Grains Foundation says that these ancient varieties are more nutritious, more flavourful, and are easier for our primitive bodies to metabolize and digest than some of the modern strains.
The Mesopotamians also used emmer to make beer.
Quinoa (which is not technically a grain) was known to the Incas as the "Mother Grain" or "Super Grain," and played a major role in their culture.
Kamut International Ltd. sent us this information, for anyone interested in "kamut":
KAMUT® is a trademark for an ancient variety of grain called khorasan. The KAMUT® trademark is a guarantee that the grain has never been hybridized or genetically modified, meets strict quality standards and is always organically grown. “KAMUT” was found as a reference to wheat in an Egyptian hieroglyphic dictionary.
I'm gluten intolerant: what kinds of grains are best for me?
The Heritage Grains Foundation says: don't discount wheat just because you react to most flours. Typical flour tends to include too many wheat varieties to be able to pinpoint which particular wheat is causing the problem. Generally the more modern strains of grains will be harder for our bodies to metabolize and digest, simply because they've become too complex. The simpler ancestral grains, such as emmer and spelt, may be easier for our bodies to digest.
Winter wheat is a type of wheat that is planted from September to December in the Northern Hemisphere. Winter wheat sprouts before freezing occurs, then becomes dormant until the soil warms in the spring. Winter wheat needs a few weeks of cold before being able to flower; however, persistent snow cover might be disadvantageous. It is ready to be harvested by early July.
Hard winter wheats have a higher gluten protein content than other wheats. They are used to make flour for yeast breads, or are blended with soft spring wheats to make the all-purpose flour used in a wide variety of baked products. Soft wheat is used for specialty or cake flour. Durum, the hardest wheat, is primarily used for making pasta. Almost all durum wheat grown in North America is spring-planted.
In our temperate West Coast climate, many growers are experimenting with planting spring wheat varieties in the winter, to see if they'll survive the rainy/cold season. At Makaria Farm in Duncan we've planted hard white spring wheat in the fall and the spring with great success:
If you plant in the fall, the grain will get a head-start before the chilly winter hits. This may result in a stronger plant and therefore a better yield at harvest time (approx. 20%). You also might be able to harvest a few weeks earlier (e.g. July/August instead of August/September).
IMPORTANT: Note that some cereal grains simply won't survive cold winter temperatures (e.g. oats, quinoa, amaranth), so must be planted in the spring.
Note: due to the various micro-climates on our West Coast, these are approximate times to plant. Experiment to find what works for you.
Oats: as early as you can get onto the soil in the New Year, or "whenever the mud dries enough in the spring to be workable," as Gene Logsdon says. Possibly late February, depending on your micro-climate and soil.
Spring-planted rye: early March.
Quinoa: April. Don't try to overwinter quinoa, since it doesn't like being wet.
Spring Wheats: April.
Kamut (Polish wheat): April.
Winter Wheats: September/October.
Fall-planted Rye: October.
Barley: late June, early July.
Wheat: August (fall-sown wheat and Kamut can usually be harvested in early August). To thresh, the seed kernels should be hard enough that you can't make an indent with your fingernail: if the grain is too soft, let it dry out in a greenhouse or a dry, hot place until it's ready.
Rye: July for fall-sown rye. We haven't tried planting rye in the spring for harvest so don't know how long it would take to mature.
Flax: early August. Shake the stalks and you'll hear the seeds "jingle" in their spherical seedpods.
Buckwheat: late September.
Amaranth: "when the birds start pecking at your amaranth plants, it's time to harvest," says Dan Jason (i.e. late September). If you leave the seed on the plant too long, they will harden and it will be extremely difficult to thresh. Shake or rub the seed heads to loosen the seed into a bucket, then dry the seeds indoor on trays for at least one week. When they are rock hard, they are ready to thresh.
Quinoa: September/October. Feel the seed heads: if the seeds feel like hard balls, they're ready to harvest.
There are countless varieties of grains in the world. In Canada, we haven't (yet) fully explored the many varieties to know which ones will do best in our many micro-climates, or are best suited to our individual eating styles. To get you started on discovering which grains are right for you, here are some recommendations:
Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds:
- blue-tinged Ethiopian wheat (delicious when whole cooked)
- Red Fife wheat (excellent flavour)
- Brazilian lavras wheat (especially when whole cooked)
Robert Giardino of the Heritage Grains Foundation:
- emmer (an ancestral grain eaten by the pharoahs; extremely difficult to thresh without machinery)
Helen Reid, Cowichan quinoa grower:
- quinoa, although not technically a grain (stunningly beautiful plants; a local alternative to rice; a nutrient powerhouse)
Brock & Heather of Makaria Farm:
- modern wheats, such as the generic "hard white spring wheat" (we love the short, consistent height (2' in 2010) for harvesting with a scythe, and they grow well for us)
- rye (it grows really tall at 8-9', which risks lodging, but we like getting all the straw as a byproduct; we like rye as a cover crop for our vegetable farm; and we get massive yields from the 8-10" long seed heads which leads to greater yields in small areas)
- flax (it's pretty in bouquets!)