Ah, Flanders, welcome back!

Ah, Flanders, welcome back!

by Josiah Meldrum

Just in time for Real Bread Week we're welcoming Flanders wheat into the Bean Store and offering a very special loaf from Wakelyns Bakery.

Diversity is at the heart of resilient agroecological food systems. Diversity on farms and on plates. Diversity in what’s grown for food and in what lives and grows within and between those crops. And a diversity of people and businesses growing, making and eating.

For that reason we’re delighted to be welcoming Flanders back onto farms and into bakeries. For close to 35 years this once popular wheat has been locked away in gene banks, occasionally used in breeding programmes or as a curiosity for demonstration purposes. It’s the fate of tens of thousands of crop plants. In the case of wheat generally because they’re replaced by higher yielding varieties or become susceptible to particular strains of particular diseases (usually because they’re grown in very large monocultures).

Flanders is a French wheat, it isn’t an old wheat variety - in fact it was released in the UK in around 1975. But it tells a fascinating story about genetic diversity. Hodmedod’s co-founder William remembered Flanders from his early days in farming, how the millers and bakers he grew it for in Essex really rated it. Its French parentage made it quite unlike any other wheat being grown in the UK; soft, but with bread making qualities.

And then Flanders disappeared.

Just like that it was replaced by shorter straw varieties that were more ‘efficient’ at converting nitrogen into grain (straw was not in fashion on arable farms in the 70s, seen as a problem to be got rid of rather than an asset). It didn't disapppear because millers and bakers didn’t like it, it wasn’t replaced by wheats that performed better in the bakery or that tasted better or that were nutritionally more interesting. 

William thought we should grow a bit, just to see how it tasted, what kind of loaves could be made. It shouldn't, but it always does suprise us with these overlooked crops: Flanders is almost extinct. This 45 year young variety only exists in seed banks. So we asked the Germplasm Unit (seed bank) at the John Innes Centre for a 50g sample and asked cereals expert Dr Edward Dickin if he’d be willing to multiply it up for us. It takes a few years and Ed began the process in his garden before moving the Flanders out to his parent’s farm in Lincolnshire. By harvest 2020 we finally had enough for a loaf or two, and it tasted amazing, so Ed planted all the seed we hadn’t eaten for the 2021 harvest.

This year we’ve got a few tonnes to mill for flour, will be selling it as grain (for home milling or use as a rice alternative) and from time to time we’ll offer it as a special loaf.

Why does all this matter. Flanders isn’t a landrace, an historic heritage line or something with - other than for William - cultural significance. It’s all about diversity, strength in depth. Resilience. Crop genetic diversity holds the answer to future questions, some of which we know, others that are yet to emerge. With wheat in particular, with its extraordinary genome (look it up - wow!), all cultivars have something potentially interesting to offer. Seed banks like the JIC are incredibly important, but they’re underfunded (not just here - globally) and need more support. A lot more support. And they can only ever hold a genetic snapshot of a crop plant - we need to be growing and eating a greater diversity of crop species and cultivars.

Ed will be taking the Flanders and adding it to populations and mixtures, crossing it with other varieties and seeing where else it’s unusual properties might be useful.




Josiah Meldrum
Josiah Meldrum

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