Thursday, July 15, 2010

Setting the Field on Fire

Chefs are always looking for great ingredients, whether they are new or unusual varieties of produce, or unique methods of cultivation that will entice their guests at the restaurant. For the farmer, it is a little more of a challenge to grow something little known or understood. First, they have to learn the particulars of how to grow it, often without guidance or counsel, and second, they have to inspire people to try it, use it, and buy it.
I feel grateful to work with a community of such creative farmers who are able to bring new products to market, and take chances year after year. Such was the case in 2006, when I first tasted a mesmerizing whole grain called frikeh, from Ayer's Creek Farm in Gaston. The story begins a few years earlier.
In 2003, Anthony and Carol Boutard bought a small thresher for their dry bean business, and decided to buy some concaves and screens for grains as well. Their dried beans are widely loved, and they had been considering growing some specialty grains. Although grain crops are aesthetically wonderful, the economics are often very difficult for a small farm. Wheat prices usually fall between $4 and $6 per sixty pound bushel, not nearly enough for a small, diversified farm. The Boutards are always looking for exciting new prospects, but they are very conscious of the fact that there must be an economic reality in the market for their enthusiasm.
Anthony and Carol are diligent in their research. Because they come from that ilk of farmers who actually eat from their own crops, they are often inspired by cookbooks, and had read about naked barleys in Jenni Muir's "A Cook's Guide to Grains." These hulless grains do not require pearling of their fibrous exterior for digestion, and are thus more nutritious and delicious than the hulled types. Specialty grains like farro have regained popularity in recent years, and command a higher price than durum wheat or barley, but the Boutards had become interested in harvesting green wheat. In the fields of Europe, they harvest hard wheat in its green stage, called grunkern. In the Middle East, they have an ancient tradition of parching the green wheat harvest, where it is known as frikeh, or farik. The Boutard's had read about frikeh in an online discussion of Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Grains and Greens," and they were hooked on the idea.
Anthony determined that "for a small farm, it was a perfect crop." With a harvest window of about three days, and being labor intensive with no domestic producers, the market price was feasible at $6 per pound! The grain must be parched during the transition between the milk stage and the soft dough stage, halting the conversion of sugars to starches. The grain at that point is still green, with enough moisture to withstand a flame. Despite this advantage, there is still an art to burning the awns all the way down to the tip of the grain, and then cooling the head before the grain gets scorched. Properly done, the crop is uniquely smoky, yet still sweet, grassy and nutty, with a pleasant toothsomeness.
Frikeh is traditionally used in salads like tabbouleh, or fried in minced meat croquettes called kibbeh. I like using it with delicious summer flavors, a grain salad with cherries, cucumbers and feta, or a late summer salad with grilled corn and chanterelles. My thanks go out to Anthony and Carol for bringing an ancient delicacy to life here in the Willamette Valley.

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