Thanks to Dan Barber, I now have a hankering for spelt.
What exactly, might you be asking, is spelt? I certainly had no idea until I read Barber’s “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.” Dan Barber is the chef at Blue Hill (which basically originated the farm to table restaurant concept) and also at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture , a mecca for young farmers and foodies that possesses virtually mythological proportions of bucolic-ness in my mind.
While I found it a little odd that close to 50% of a book written by a NYC- and Westchester-based chef about the local food system was set in restaurants and farms of southern Spain, I wholeheartedly agree with his proposal that consumers (and the chefs that feed them) must broaden their palates to include much more of what’s produced on a farm than the trendy heirloom vegetable du jour. Chefs “need to learn to cook with the whole farm.”
“What we refer to as the beginning and ending of the food chain – a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other – isn’t really a chain at all… The right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same. Our belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. Because it’s too narrow-minded. We can’t think about changing parts of our system. We need to think about redesigning the system.”
The Third Plate is divided into four sections — Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed — as well as an epilogue describing what Barber hopes will be on the Blue Hill at Stone Barns menu by the year 2015. I thought Land and Sea got bogged down by the description of Barber’s multiple trans-Atlantic trips to Spain (where he went to taste fois gras, ham, farmed fish, and a fish dish thickened with pureed fish eyeballs… nom nom?) but his Soil and Seed sections very much spoke to me. That’s not much of a surprise, since it was in those sections that he focused on agriculture and land use, and bread.
The chef describes why soil is the most fundamental building block of a successful agriculture enterprise.
“The full accounting [of agricultural outputs] includes what’s drawn from the soil bank…We cannot have good food – healthy, sustainable, or delicious – without soil filled with life.”
To have soil filled with life means that variety abounds. Barber explains the challenges with wheat:
“Like any crop harvested in nature, wheat is unpredictable, influenced by the weather and the local soil conditions. Inconsistency is guaranteed.”
As for spelt, this and other ancient grains like emmer fell out of fashion when baking became more industrialized and factories wanted a quick and guaranteed product that would come out the same each time. Today’s manufactured loaves are consistent and exponentially more shelf-stable, but at the expense of taste and variety. Thanks to Google, I know now that I can get bread made with spelt grain from a few places here in NYC, including the fantastic Upper East Side stalwart Orwasher’s Bakery, which I first became acquainted with at the Just Food benefit. I was also excited to learn that the Greenmarket has a Regional Grains Project. I think there may be some market and bakery field trips in my future this weekend!
I’m really happy that chefs like Dan Barber are wielding their influence to serve as sustainability-minded taste-makers.