by Roberto Flore
Intentionally germinating seeds can yield a range of new flavours. Here we experiment with sprouting a purple wheat, which yields a flavour like fruity young olive oil when sprouted.
Germination occurs in the presence of water, oxygen and a temperature between 4 and 37˚C (Spilde, 1989). Under ideal conditions the kernel will absorb up to 45% of its weight in water and double in volume (Evans et al, 1975). The bran becomes soft, allowing the roots to protrude and anchor the plant to the ground, and to search for water. At the same time, a complex enzymatic process begins inside the endosperm, with enzymes transforming the tissue into readily available nutrients used by the germ to sprout – a property harnessed in malting and fermentation processes.
To sprout the wheat, place 150 g of seeds into 300 ml of filtered water for 24 hours, allowing them to expand and create the necessary moisture for germination. Then, lay the seeds out on a tray and rinse them every day for the next few days. The sprouts can be used after a week or ten days, depending on their application, though two weeks is recommended for full development of the grass.
Last April, with spring around the corner, I became obsessed with sprouting grains. I come from Sardinia, an ancient island in the Mediterranean, where we have certain rituals associated with this time of year. It is when Adonis, Greek god of vegetation, beauty, and rebirth, comes back to life, and we leave wheat grains to germinate in large jars to represent this renewal. The act is purely ritualistic – we do not eat the sprouts. Together, the jars and the sprouting wheat within is called Su Nenniri in the Sardinian language, Sardo . There are similar traditions all around the Mediterranean: for the gods Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Tammuz and Astarte in Babylon, Aphrodite and Adonis in Greece. There are also similar myths and rituals in civilizations further to the east.
It is a special time of year for me and I wanted to share a piece of my culture with my colleagues at the lab. So I went down to our pantry in the bottom of the boat, and came up bearing every type of grain we had on board. I was going to investigate the biodiversity of Scandinavian rye, wheat, barley, and other grains in their stage of newest growth.
Tasting all of the different sprouts in their different stages of development, I decided it was time to update our appreciation of wheat grass, as well as its juice. The extract is rich in vitamins and minerals, and widely used in natural medicine as a potent prevention against cancer. The juice is also full of chlorophyll. Because of its similar molecular composition to hemoglobin in human blood (Smith, 1944), chlorophyll is also sometimes known as ‘vegetable blood’. The presence of iron in haemoglobin is similar to the magnesium in chlorophyll.
Of all the sprouted grains, by far the most particular and interesting was the purple wheat. The sprout has the flavour of a fruity young olive oil, and the grain has an incredible sweetness for something so small. In addition, it also germinates quickly and has good root development.
Seeds and germination
To talk about germination we need to talk about seeds. Plants that produce seeds are called Spermatophytes (from the Greek spérmatos for seed and phyton for plant), in contrast to other plants such as ferns, horsetails, and mosses which use other means of self-propagation. The seed is formed after the ovule is fertilized by pollen, develops on the mother plant and then detaches when mature.
The wheat seed is composed of three parts: the germ, the endosperm and the bran. The germ contains all the genetic information for the plant to develop, the endosperm is the nutritive tissue that nourishes the new plant in the early stages of its development, and bran acts as shield to protect the vital parts of the seed.
Germination occurs in the presence of water, oxygen and a temperature between 4 and 37˚C (Spilde, 1989). Under ideal conditions the kernel will absorb up to 45% of its weight in water and double in volume (Evans et al, 1975). The bran becomes soft, allowing the roots to protrude and anchor the plant to the ground, and to search for water. At the same time, a complex enzymatic process begins inside the endosperm, with enzymes transforming the tissue into readily available nutrients used by the germ to sprout. This process is important because it gives the sprout sufficient energy to emerge from the soil. Depending on the species, the seeds have the ability to remain viable up to 30 years in a dormant state, waiting for optimal conditions.
Germination and other processing techniques like fermentation have been used by many agricultural civilizations to make the nutrition of grains more bioavailable (Poutanen et al, 2006). For example, it forms the basis of malting which is used to turn the starches into sugars and thus make them available for brewing beer. Soaking grains can also remove phytates that can block the uptake of certain vitamins in the body (Lestienne et al, 2006).
The germination and sprouting process takes more or less seven days. I put 150 g of seeds into 300 ml of filtered water for 24 hours, allowing them to expand and create the necessary moisture for germination. Then, I laid the seeds out on a gastro tray and rinsed them every day for the next few days. This is a particularly crucial moment, because excessive water facilitates the development of mould, which can cause rotting of the seed and a bad odor, while too little water can affect plant development, and can cause the death of the plant. It is important to take good care of the seeds in this period. I did not germinate the seeds in soil because from the beginning of the project my idea was to experiment with all parts of the plant.
While reading more about this particularly delicious purple wheat, I discovered it has ten times more anthocyanins than other types of wheat. Anthocyanins, polyhydroxylated polyaromatic compounds, are able to react with oxidizing agents such as molecular oxygen and free radicals, and thereby reduce the damage these molecules cause to cells and body tissue. They are what gives the wheat its purple colour; similar compounds are found in other purple-tinted foods, like red cabbage, beets, and some berries.
Purple-grain tetraploid wheats (Triticum turgidum L.) have been grown traditionally in the highlands of Ethiopia (Belay et al., 1995) and used in both food and beverages. German botanists were the first to record the purple traits in wheat during travels in East Africa in the late 1800s. Samples were collected and brought back to Europe, and then later hybridized with European bread wheat varieties in the first part of the 20th century. Such crosses were carried out to transfer genes such as disease resistance and winter hardiness. The first commercial production of purple wheat (also called PurPur wheat industrially) was in New Zealand, followed by Europe and Canada (Jafaar et al., 2013).
We got our purple wheat from a friend of the lab, Ida. She plays the double bass and lived on a boat next to us a couple summers back, and her parents have a biodynamic farm called Østagergård in the middle of Zealand. They raise Angus cows, grow grain like this wheat and other vegetables, and operate a school for mentally handicapped people teaching about grain production and processing. It’s a good place, and we have since also been working with their meat, which is of great quality.
I was so inspired by the incredible flavour of these sprouts and the connection between Sardinian “Nenniri” and my project at the lab in Copenhagen, that I had to make a dish. It was springtime, with all the new life starting again, so I wanted to explore the different applications of these sprouts by following the web of life that emerges from it.
While the inspiration for the dish is the sprouted purple wheat, the core of the dish is spring lamb. For me, taste is not the only element of a dish I love; I also pursue a dish’s power to evoke memories. In this case, I was reminded of my grandfather, who was a shepherd. When I was young he gave me a lamb to take care of every Easter. This was always a very special moment of my childhood. I knew I had to find a very special lamb in Denmark.
I found my lamb on a farm close to Vadehavet National Park in southwest Jutland. This breed of sheep is a careful selection of two native breeds (Marsk and Texel) adapted to live in an environment close to the ocean where the grasses and herbs are salty and full of minerals. The sheep consume the grass, which gives their meat a particularly mineral taste and a natural seasoning. It is a beautiful product.
Although the meat was already very flavourful, I wanted to bring out even more of its aromatic complexity. So I used brined stems of sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) in order to enhance the balance between the taste of the meat and the herbal taste of the sprout juice.
After making the juice from the wheat grass, we were left with the sweet germinated seeds. To use the whole sprout and show of their contrasting parts I blended the sweet grains with sheep’s milk and dried the mixture into a crisp.
The other essential element of the dish is an ancient cheese called ‘Cazu de Crabittu’. It is produced in Sardinia and dates back to Neolithic times (Fancello, G., pers. com., 5 May, 2014). It is made directly in the fourth and final stomach, or abomasum, of a suckling goat, because it contains many enzymes responsible for the digestion – or in this case the coagulation – of milk.
Traditionally, just before killing a goat kid, the shepherd leaves it to suckle its mother milk. He then separates the abomasum from the other parts of the intestines, which are used for other purposes.
The abomasum is emptied, and the milk is filtered with a simple net then returned to the stomach. The stomach is rubbed on the outside with salt and hung to dry (in a cellar, for example) for some months. After the maturation, we slice open the stomach and spread small amounts of the cheese onto ‘pane carasau’, a traditional flat bread which is very thin. In pastoralist circles, the cheese is even referred to as ‘Sardinian viagra’, or ‘faede arrettae’ in Sardo. The taste of the cheese is different every time, because the milk is raw and because the goats live freely eating many wild plant species. The result is a super tasty and strong creamy cheese with different nuances, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter all combined with a persistent wild animal aroma. When you taste ‘Su Cazu de Crabittu’ you will never forget the taste.
Our Cazu de Crabittu (literally 'rennet of baby goat') was made by my friend Mario Manca, a well-known producer of this style of cheese in Sardinia, which he sent to me in Copenhagen as a gift for Easter.
So, the dish: Tartare of spring lamb from Vadehavet, Cazu de Crabittu, juice of purple wheat sprouts, sprouted purple wheat chip.
For one plate
35 g raw Vadehavet spring lamb filet
2 g brined sweet clover stems (3% salt brine, vacuum-sealed, 15 h), finely chopped
2 g chopped purple wheat grass
2 ml of purple wheat sprout juice
One hour before serving, chop the meat into small pieces with a knife. Close in a vacuum bag and keep cold.
Just before serving, mix meat with finely chopped sweet clover stems, chopped purple wheat grass and sprout juice.
Purple wheat sprout juice
50 g wheat grass
2 ice cubes
10 ml filtered water
Cut the grass with scissors. Place in thermomix with the ice cubes and water and blend for 50 seconds.
Filter through a superbag or other fine filter, squeeze remainder through filter and seal in a vacuum bag. Keep cold.
Purple wheat crisp
100 g germinated purple wheat seed
100 g sheep’s milk
3 g salt
Boil the germinated seeds and reduce the milk to 1/3 of its original volume. Place all in a pacojet container and freeze in blast chiller.
Process with pacojet and freeze again. Repeat this step twice more then brush the mixture on oven paper and dehydrate at 100˚C for 25 minutes.
Grind into a powder.
Take a mat of whole sprouts with seeds and roots attached, place in a dish and put a small amount of Cazu de Cabrittu onto one of the sprouts, as if it were a spittlebug.
Chill another plate. Place a small spoon of tartare off-centre, followed by a spoon of wheat grass liquid in the centre indentation and five whole sprouts with seeds and roots. Sprinkle onion seed powder around the edge of the juice, and place a purple wheat crisp on top of the tartare.
Serve the sprout with Cazu de Cabrittu first, and then the tartare.
When I finished the dish, I took it to Saturday Night Projects to share with the chefs at noma.
It was a good time.
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Evans, L.T., Wardlaw, I.F. & Fischer, R.A. Wheat. In L.T. Evans, ed. Crop physiology, p. 101-149. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press (1975).
Jaafar, Syed, et al. "Increased anthocyanin content in purple pericarp× blue aleurone wheat crosses." Plant Breeding 132.6: 546-552 (2013).
Lestienne, Isabelle, et al. “Effects of soaking whole cereal and legume seeds on iron, zinc and phytate contents.” Food Chemistry 89.3: 421-425 (2005).
Poutanen, Kaisa, Laura Flander, and Kati Katina. "Sourdough and cereal fermentation in a nutritional perspective." Food Microbiology 26.7: 693-699 (2007).
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Spilde, L.A. “Influence of seed size and test weight on several agronomic traits of barley and hard red spring wheat.” Journal of Production Agriculture 2: 169-172 (1989).