Scientists Have Revived Extinct Israeli Wheat Strains. Now Comes the Taste Test

For the first time, a large, commercial flour mill has joined scientists and other experts to revive the lost varieties of wheat of the Land of Israel

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Credit: Dor Kedmi
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Early in the afternoon, shortly after the dozens of invited guests arrived, David “Friedy” Friedman, chief food technologist of Stybel Flour Mills, and the company’s chief baker, Yuval Alhadeff, arranged loaves of bread for tasting on a round table. The handiwork of four bakers, the breads were made of white and whole-wheat flours ground from different varieties of wheat. Three of the latter strains were part of the collection of the Land of Wheat project, whose aim is to revive varieties of heirloom wheat that have disappeared from local fields in recent decades. The fourth loaf was made with a regular, modern type of flour; it was planted, so to speak, among the other breads to provide a basis for comparison during this first of two tasting events organized by Stybel last month.

“We received the wheat kernels from the Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research, and neither we nor the bakers know which of them is the modern commercial variety and which are heirloom varieties,” says Friedman, his eyes glittering. In his 80s today, he’s someone who seems to be perpetually young and thirsting for knowledge. “At the moment,” he adds, “they are marked by letters – E, F, G, H – and only after the tasting will we find out which is which.”

In the meantime, scientists and other researchers collaborating in the Land of Wheat – a joint project of the Agricultural Research Organization at the Volcani Center, the Weizmann Institute of Science and local universities – were immersed at the tasting event in intense last-minute discussions, using Excel tables and checking databases. The project’s collection, compiled over the past few years from archives of research centers and gene banks in Israel and internationally, currently comprises nearly 1,000 wheat lines or accessions, as experts refer to the different strains. Seeds found within a close geographical radius or those sharing certain common features have been collected and stored in envelopes as part of the project; recently some were discovered by researchers in long-forgotten boxes in a gene bank or in such far-flung places as a research center in Mexico.

“The Land of Wheat collection contains 945 lines at the moment,” notes doctoral student Sivan Frankin, who is studying the agronomic and genetic characterization of the collection’s lines of wheat.

In the modern era wheat has become one of a small number of agricultural crops – others are rice and corn – that supply the majority of humanity’s food. Most of today’s wheat originates in modern lines cultivated after World War II in the wake of the trauma of widespread hunger that it spurred and forecasts concerning global population growth. The underlying idea was to produce strains that were easy and inexpensive to cultivate, which would feed millions of people. The scientists developing those postwar strains, apparently mostly in Japan, succeeded, with the result being that the new varieties essentially replaced the wheat accessions that had developed over hundreds and thousands of years, in accordance with different terrain conditions. However, the modern strains’ diminished biological and genetic diversity has rendered the world’s wheat production vulnerable – any numbers of diseases or pests can wipe out a whole crop – and caused the disappearance of heirloom varieties that had once given rise to fascinating culinary and cultural traditions.

Credit: Dor Kedmi

These same processes, occurring over time and around the globe, were particularly evident in Mandatory Palestine and in Israel during its first decades, where significant geopolitical and demographic upheavals were taking place. In this country, unlike other places, modern strains of wheat were not even crossbred with local heritage varieties that would adapt better to the conditions here.

“The process of the displacement of the traditional lines from Israel’s fields was completed almost fully in the 1980s,” says Frankin, who joined the Land of Wheat project in 2017, about two years after a group of scientific researchers and non-academic devotees of the heirloom concept – inspired by similar initiatives overseas – started to search for extinct wheat lines in gene banks and other research institutions here and abroad, in order to bring them together in one place.

In the past four years, the Land of Wheat project has been engaged in the propagation of various lines of wheat seeds, attempting to grow them in diverse conditions and locales, profiling their biological and genetic characteristics, and trying to winnow out certain varieties in order to focus on select ones with commercial and culinary potential.

The two tasting events that took place last month at the Ad Halom flour mill on the outskirts of Ashdod were not the first involving breads baked from local heritage strains. They were preceded by tastings at small artisanal bakeries and at a research center where certain lines were cultivated (in Gilat, for example, baker Doron Dagan worked closely with an agronomist, Dr. David Bonfil, adding culinary insight that would hopefully enrich the scientific developments). The Ad Halom events, though, marked the first time a tasting of breads made from lines of local heritage wheat was held at one of the country’s major industrial mills.

“It’s significant that Stybel and other large mills are opening their doors to us,” says Dr. Roi Ben-David from the Volcani Center’s agricultural research organization. “The feeling at first was that they were a bit skeptical about the research we were doing – along the lines of, ‘Don’t bother us with this passing craze’ – but in the past year channels of cooperation opened up.”

Credit: Dor Kedmi

To which Frankin adds, “the big flour mills now also understand that development and cultivation of the modern strains focused on large crops at the expense of flavor and quality, and that the heritage varieties have added value. The fact that a big mill like Stybel is providing us with resources and time gives rise to the hope that a real change can be fomented.”

It will take a long time before the five vast silos of the huge mill – each of which holds 1,200 tons of wheat – fill up with locally grown seeds, not to mention heritage varieties. In fact, that day may never arrive – Israel is too small for most of the grains it needs to be grown here – but the participation of a mill like Stybel in the search for improved flavors and nutritional values among the traditional varieties is good news. Perhaps this heralds a time when access to the flours produced from those strains will not solely be the preserve of those who can afford to buy bread at boutique bakeries.

At the appointed hour at the first of the two Stybel events, the guests – academics involved in research, along with bakers and farmers and “heritage enthusiasts” (but perhaps too few chefs and culinary experts with tasting experience from other realms) – entered the mill’s premises. The sounds of electronic messages arriving simultaneously over dozens of phones, signaled that the forms to be filled out had come in via WhatsApp. “There’s no one who saw the forms who didn’t want to change or add something,” agronomist Bonfil says.

Internationally, too, bakery-laboratory collaborations have been established in recent years in which farmers, millers and bakers work side by side, but no binding protocol or agreed terminology exists for bread tasting. “Everyone has their own method, and we drew up a questionnaire based on wine and olive oil tastings, and we know it’s not perfect,” he adds.

Only after long and precise rounds of tastings and data calculations did the Land of Wheat researchers reveal the names of the three heritage varieties from which the breads had been baked: Diar Alla, Lubnani Kisra and Palestinsaika – the latter originally collected by Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov in southern Lebanon in the 1920s.

Credit: Dor Kedmi

“The most successful, to my taste, is Lubnani Kisra,” according to Anomarel Ogen, one of the four bakers who made the experimental breads for the first, blind tasting.

“With modern wheat, in which the protein and starch composition is different, you very quickly get a flexible dough, which stretches easily and resumes its shape easily. Working with traditional wheat is harder. You need to adjust the processes to the wheat itself, which is something contemporary bakers like to do less, because the modern flours have made life easy.”

The first tasting, about two weeks ago, focused on heritage strains of non-durum wheat; the second one dealt with heritage varieties of durum wheat, which piqued the curiosity of artisanal bakers and others. The four bakers – Alhadeff, Ogen, Dagan and Shaheen Shaheen – received from Stybel flours that had been ground from four varieties of durum wheat – which has harder kernels and is genetically different from the non-durum type, and are much more typical of the traditional, indigenous strains that once thrived in our region.

“Of the almost 1,000 lines in the Land of Wheat collection, attesting to the region’s agricultural and cultural history, 700 are durum wheat varieties,” says Frankin.

“Our climate is better suited to durum wheat, especially in light of global warming,” notes Zvi Peleg from the Rehovot-based Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Durum,” adds the professor, who is working on ways to cultivate modern types of that kind of wheat that will be better suited to climate change, “is the cultured variety of the mother of wheat – the wild strain whose origin lies in our region, and there is no doubt that durum was what was grown here 5,000 years ago.”

Credit: Dor Kedmi

Ogen, the baker who in the past two years has been researching this subject tenaciously, agrees about the potential of durum: “My interest in durum wheat sprang from my desire to create truly local breads. When I started to look at the research literature, I realized that it focuses on making flour for pasta. The implicit assumption is that durum wheat is less suited to baking bread, and if at all, only for flat bread. But you don’t need to go far in order to understand that this is a mistake: It’s enough to hop over to Puglia in southern Italy. In my bakery I discovered that it’s not a problem to use durum also to bake breads from whole-wheat flours that have volume and presence. I find the profile of the flavors of durum wheats more interesting than that of regular wheats used in bread, and durum wheat has a longer shelf-life and a soft texture that I like.”

The two Stybel tastings – of the three lines of non-durum bread wheat and the three of durum, all heritage varieties – are only an example of the scientific-cultural potential of the Land of Wheat project.

“We are just scratching the surface,” says Ben-David, of the Volcani Center. “We focused, almost randomly, on 13 lines from a huge collection, which allowed us within a relatively short time to arrive at a point where we can supply seeds to small farm plots and to produce flour in a quantity sufficient for us to conduct experimental tastings like the ones at Stybel.”

“This is only a peek into the treasure chest,” Frankin agrees. “We won’t emerge from it with definitive conclusions, but we want to generate interest – among farmers, millers, bakers and also among consumers – and perhaps the demand that will grow from below will drive the wheels of change.”

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