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Freekah, Farro and Robin Hood - פריקה,פארו, ורובין הוד

October 17, 2019

I grew up in Saskatchewan. It is cold. Very cold - at least it was when I was a child. The end of August is harvest time. September is falling leaves. By October the air is brisk and Halloween costumes are more often than not, worn over winter coats. November, the wind blows harder and the snow begins. And in December the days begin at 9 a.m. and end at 4:15. January, February and March and much of April are lived indoors. It is just too bloody freezing outside for anything other than hockey and the occasional tobogganing on sunny days, It was harsh. At least  the weather was but it was not an unhappy life. It was a challenging life.

 

At one time Saskatchewan was best known for being the "Breadbasket of Canada", supplying the whole country and often the continent and beyond with wheat. Because of the arid soil and the very, very short growing season it is hard to imagine how this was possible. Thanks to the foresight of Agriculture Canada and the agrarian scientists at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba, new, very hardy wheat cultivars were developed to withstand the limits of the growing environment. Hard red winter wheat, which has many many sub-varieties such as Marquis, Selkirk, Garnet and Fife thrive in the prairies because they have been cultivated for their resistance to rust, to cold and to long periods of drought.  

 

It is no coincidence that the High School I attended was named for a prominent agricultural scientist, Evan Hardy. It is also no coincidence that the school was divided into four houses - Marquis, Selkirk, Garnet and Fife. I knew that Hardy was important to wheat development and I mistakenly believed that he had developed the four cultivars named above. But no. In fact, he was known for transitioning the horse-based farm to the modern machine run farm. 

 

Nevertheless, I grew up with wheat. With wheat elevators, with wheat farmers, with the giant wheat mill on the other side of town and most important, with the memory of my grandparents wheat farm in D'Arcy, Saskatchewan

 

I never got to visit the farm until 50 years after they sold it. But I did get to visit the Robin Hood Flour Mill where our class watched the process from beginning to end. Separating the chaff, removing and preserving the bran, grinding the groats and milling the flour. We each got some mature wheat to chew on and miraculously turned to gum. One of the better field trips. 

 

My mother baked everything - bread, cake, pie- from Robin Hood Flour.

 

When I moved to New York I started baking with American flour and everything failed. It wasn't the same creature at all. So I started to schlepp flour from Canada to the U.S. so that my recipes would work. I did this for 30 years. And I still do it today.

 

I thought I knew about wheat and flour. And I did, but only of a fraction of what there is to know.

 

I love my Robin Hood recipes but since I moved to Tel Aviv  I have taken to all sort of ancient varieties of flour and wheat and ancient cooking methods. For Rosh Hashanah we made our tabbouleh with wheat groats and pearl barley (טאבולה עם גריסי חיטה ושעורה). 

 

A main vegan dish at Sukkoth (סוכות)was freekah (פריקה) with squash and silan (דלעת וסילאן). In a month I will start with farro (פארו) soup. There is spelt (כוסמין) and emmer (אמר חיטה)and teff (טף) and buckwheat (כוסמת) and millet (דוחן) and bulgur  (בורגול) and rye (שיפון). True they are not all proper "wheat" but they are grasses in the same classification and they are all nutty and delicious.

 

Some people may say I am late to the party. That the vegetarian and vegan cuisines have been relying on these foods for years. And yes, I am late for that party but that's not the one I want to attend. 

 

I love living here. In Israel the collision of Jewish cultures from hundreds of different backgrounds, from centuries of adapting to the local food, to the local customs, to the constraints of kashrut, has produced a unique moment in time. A time when there is a still a memory of living under the sukkah of another nation and bringing that knowledge forward. 

 

I know that my grandparents would not know what to make of freekah. But I know that my Bubba would have figured out that it was green, hard wheat and that she could learn to appreciate it and  even come to treasure it. 

 

I have come to embrace this moment. To add s'gug (סחוג) to my Persian rice (אורז פרסי) and tahina (טחינה) to my vinaigrette and to put fresh cilantro (כוסברה) on almost anything. 

 

 

 

 

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