Food for thought - the story of wheat

Ann Lee explains the importance of wheat in our daily life

Image: Ann Lee

This photo shows an ear of bearded wheat, harvested from the patch that we grew at Brixton Windmill to demonstrate the origins of our daily bread and the purpose of the mill.

Today we depend on wheat for 20% of our calories (rice plays a similar role in some countries). As you eat your pizza, pasta, breakfast cereal, crusty roll or chapati, are you aware that you are consuming the most widely cultivated foodplant on earth? And that without the ability to grind the grain into flour, you wouldn’t be able to do this?

For millers and historians alike, the importance of wheat dates back 10,000 years to the dawn of agriculture and of civilisation itself. Remains of wheat have been found in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, and there are traces of cultivated wheat crops in some older excavations in eastern Iraq.

As soon as humans discovered that hardy varieties of grasses, once ground with rocks, made a satisfying and sustaining meal, they began to get together to cultivate it in a regular fashion, avoiding many of the risks associated with foraging and hunting for food.

Much later, around 3000 BCE, the Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast – and to use bread ovens. Later still, around 200 BCE, the Romans used animal power to help with the grinding.

The first watermills appeared in Asia Minor in 85 BCE, but it is not until many centuries later that we find what we would now recognise as windmills in the Middle East, and only around the late 12th century do they appear in France and England. Mills were built close to where the crop was grown.

In the 18th century, improvements in farming techniques meant that the amount of grain harvested greatly increased.

The need for a mill

Image: Nick Weedon

By 1816, when Brixton Windmill was built, the main crop grown for human consumption in England was wheat. It was an essential component of our daily diet, but one that needed a considerable amount of processing before it was fit for eating in the form of bread and cakes, or drinking as an ingredient of beer.

So important was this staple that a failed harvest could mean starvation, and the milling process was a vital link in the chain of provision, putting millers in a position of power in relation to both growers and consumers.

So when John Ashby – a member of an extended family of millers and millwrights in south east England – decided to take on the lease of Brixton Windmill, he had every prospect of turning it into a successful business, despite growing competition from new industrial processes.

Situated near the top of a hill, with open fields on most sides, Brixton Windmill was in an excellent position to catch the wind in its sails and convert it into the energy that drove the millstones.

Lost heritage

How did the flour our ancestors ate differ from that of today? The term ‘heritage wheat’ conceals a fascinating history.

In the icy wastes of an island in the Arctic Circle north of Norway, buried deep in a frozen mountain, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest seedbank. Funded by the Norwegian government, the vault preserves seeds of the most prized varieties of crops, including the major staple food crops.

Among them are thousands of varieties of wheat, many of which would have otherwise disappeared from the world’s gene pool, replaced by varieties that promised bigger harvests and better profits.

Back to the future

Image: Nick Weedon

Now the Svalbard seeds – and other seedbanks throughout the world – are providing a major impetus behind a new movement to restore and grow some of the world’s traditional crops for future generations. Names like April Bearded (wheat sown in 2016 at Brixton Windmill), Damant and Red Lammas (“king of wheats”) are appearing once again.

The benefits are many, including genetic traits that may help fight crop disease or cope with a changing climate – not to mention recovering some long-forgotten flavours and health-giving trace elements.

Lambeth wheatfields

Until recently, you might have gone miles before encountering wheat crops that once grew in the vicinity of Brixton Windmill. But a new interest in growing food, fuelled by organisations such as Brockwell Bake – which promotes knowledge about heritage wheat, milling and baking – means that mini-plots of wheat are popping up all over Lambeth, not just at Brixton Windmill but in schools and parks all over the borough.

This reflects trends in other parts of the UK, Europe and the world, reminding us that urban sites can produce food as well as rural ones!