It’s pretty obvious that Alain Coumont is serious about bread – but he’s also passionate about the stuff that goes into it. Alain has spent the past few years delving into the world of wheat, growing his own and even looking back thousands of years to understand this crop the way that nature intended it. Read our conversation with the LPQ founder and budding wheat farmer-extraordinaire below:
Tell us a bit about “ancient wheat.” Why are you so interested in it?
With the different types of wheat, just like all plants in nature, sometimes there is a normal plant that has mutated and then has some interesting characteristic. And then that mutating plant will be taken and reproduced. The species changes. The normal wheat has 26 pairs of chromosomes, and ancient wheat has much less – I think 12 or fewer.
Today there is a lot of modification of seeds – wheat is a plant that naturally interbreeds, because of wind; because of the environment. But there are some species of wheat that were kept for thousands of years with no hybridization. We’re trying to go back to find basically old species of wheat. It’s a bit like archaeology. This summer, I have eaten bread made with a wheat that hasn’t changed in 6,000 years.
Wow – and what is that like?
It’s fantastic. It’s very dense, and the color is yellow. I first had the impression that it was made of cornmeal – but it’s pure wheat. It has a much lighter gluten, less aggressive – only 2 or 3%, where regular wheat has 11 to 12% now.
Why don’t we see more ancient wheat? Why is it so difficult to get?
You must cultivate them in a region that is far away from big grain, in a small field that is far away from industrial agriculture. It naturally grows in tiny fields in specific mountains, unchanged for thousands of years. You can’t grow it in a big field.
There is also a legal part of it – all the seeds that you plant for commercial use have to be registered with the EU or the USDA, so that means that if you pull some ancient wheat that are not in the official catalog, it’s very complicated. In Europe now there is a big controversy about it, so those seeds that are not in the official catalog – you cannot sell them or exchange them.
But there is a loophole that if you grow them yourself, if you grind them and make your own bread, it’s a different story. I met a baker who’s doing this, and I think it’s very inspiring. It’s one thing that I’d like to take a closer look at. I want to get much more involved in the milling process.
You’ve been growing your own organic, modern wheat…
Yes, in July, I harvested my first wheat. I was surprised that we had any crop at all – it’s a winter wheat, usually you plant it in October so that it has time to germinate and can survive the winter. But just when we got the wheat to plant, we had a massive amount of rain, so the soil was too soft. We planted the wheat on January 1 – on New Year’s Day. That was way too late, but we managed to harvest some wheat.
Do you have any tips?
Now, the big thing is you don’t turn the soil, because every inch that you go deeper, there are more microscopic animals that live there. They all have their function. When you till the soil, the animals that live there are brought up on top. Also, the worms are very important. If you turn it once, they stay in there. But if you do it a lot, they don’t stay. They don’t want to live there.
The plants need these worms and animals. When you see trees in the forest – massive, beautiful, strong – those are organic! The soil hasn’t been turned.
It’s a lot of experimentation. I’m not a professional farmer. It’s a hobby. It’s more just to see from my own eyes what’s possible.
Want to read more from our talks with Alain? Check out our interview in honor of Le Pain Quotidien’s 25th Anniversary.
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