Last December, we sowed on Asif’s rooftop farm a collection of local grains, including wild varieties, ancient varieties and landraces, and modern varieties cultivated in Israel by the Agricultural Research Organization.
In many aspects, the story of wheat is the story of human civilization. The history of grains begins in the Fertile Crescent region, which spans present-day Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Kuwait, Israel and Palestine. The first human urban societies developed right here, and grains developed with them, becoming, in the twenty thousand years since their domestication, humanity’s most basic and common food.
We saw that preserving wheat varieties means preserving culture and the flavors of the past, but even more, preserving the genetic and biological diversity required for agricultural stability and a healthier, more nutritious nutrition. Some even claim that the protein structure of these cultivars may make them digestible for the gluten intolerant. Today, the preservation of heirloom varieties is considered a worldwide trend, but this was not always the case.
The evolution of grains – in a nutshell
The history of grains in our region may be divided by type of grain (wheat and barley), and by period – beginning in a time when wild barley and wild wheat sometimes grew side by side – and continuing in the agricultural revolution, the outcome of selective breeding for traits supporting the domestication of the wild varieties. An ongoing selection for desired characteristics such as crop yields, grain size and flavor accompanied the development of human civilization in the next thousands of years.
As different cultures scattered around the world and formed different communities in diverse geographical areas, this process was highly decentralized. The resulting landraces, called heirloom varieties, are the foundation for a wide genetic diversity which lasted for thousands of years.
The era of varietal diversity ended in the middle of the last century, with the Green Revolution and the crossbreeding of cereals with dwarf varieties for intensive production increases. The success of the “modern varieties”, designed to feed the growing world’s population after two world wars and a time of devastating hunger in Europe, was such that the food industry nearly abandoned earlier varieties. But the loss of ancient varieties also meant a loss of culture, of flavor, of health – and of a genetic and biological diversity, crucial for the survival of mankind in a time of climate crisis.
In June, we harvested the stalks we sowed at the beginning of winter. They now decorate the tables at Cafe Asif, and allow visitors a glimpse into the prominent differences between different kinds of wheat and barley, and into their transformation in our area over time.
Timeline: The History of Local Grains
From out Rooftop Farm
A genetical research has proven it to be the wild parent of cultivated barley, which arrived from southeast Turkey. It has also been proven that hunters gathered it in this area as early as 10,000 years ago.
Heirloom barley, From Yakob Mattatia's collection.
Ancient single-grain wheat. Part of the crop bundle of the agricultural revolution in the Levant, along barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils and emmer wheat.
Modern bread wheat. A cultivar characterized by a spiral stalk, cultivated for ornamental purposes.
Modern bread wheat. A heirloom variety imported from the Czech Republic.
Ancient spelt wheat. Survived mostly in Europe, less common in the Levant.
Heirloom bread wheat. Pre-Green Revolution, collected in the Levant area. Not a dwarfed variety.
Bread wheat. An introduced (imported) variety from North Africa.
Wild Emmer Wheat
Wild wheat. An ancient wild wheat, from which the wheat most of us consume today was cultivated about 10,000 years ago. The "mother of wheat" was first discovered in a field in the north of the Land of Israel in 1873, but it Aaron Aaronsohn who proved the direct genetic link between wild wheat and cultivated wheat in the beginning of the 20th century, breeding cultivars with wild wheat to improve the cultivated variety.
Ancient two-grain wheat. Part of the crop bundle of the agricultural revolution in the Levant, along barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils and Einkorn wheat.
Heirloom durum wheat. Pre-Green Revolution, collected in the Levant area. Not a dwarfed variety.
Modern durum wheat. A crossbred with the mother of wheat, high quality for pasta. Cultivated by Dr. Uri Kushnir of the Agricultural Research Organization.
The Man who Fought Flour Mills
Jacob Mattatia, born in Jerusalem in 1933, was a nature and environment enthusiast since his childhood. He completed a PhD in the Botanical department of the Hebrew University and a postdoc in the US, and in the years 1978-1984 worked at the Israel Plant Gene Bank of the Agricultural Research Organization. A man of vision, Mattatia understood the value of ancient seeds, and embarked on a personal journey, touring the country to save them. While Jewish immigrants from Europe considered local wheat to be inferior and imported modern varieties of bread wheat, local fellaheen preserved ancient seeds in their communities over hundreds of years. In his encounters with Druze and Palestinian farmers in Israel and the West Bank, Mattatia created a collection of seeds, which he kept for years in neat little envelopes. He translated the oral information he received in Arabic into Hebrew, and filled notebooks with detailed lists, which survived to this day. These notebooks are now an invaluable source for information about folkloric knowledge and the origin of different varieties.
Yet at the time, Mattatia’s dedication to the preservation of heirloom plants raised many eyebrows, and was one of the reasons for his dismissal from the Agricultural Research Organization in the mid-1980s. 40 years later, his collection is considered extremely valuable, and his heritage is investigated and preserved in the Gene Bank, in the Agricultural Research Organization and by many researchers.
Mattatia managed to save about 140 ancient and heirloom cultivars of wheat and barley, as well as many varieties of chickpea, tomato, faqquos (Armenian cucumber), sesame and more. In recent years, seeds from his collection have been planted in experimental plots, including Asif’s rooftop farm. Some of the stalks grown at Asif were ground into flour and put to a pioneering culinary use in bakeries around Israel, for an exhibition curated at Asif by Ronit Vered, as well as in a collaboration between the Agricultural Research Organization and baker Hagay Ben Yehuda. These projects are motivated by the hope that in the near future, the general public could also benefit from breads and baked goods made from local, healthy, and nutritious heirloom cultivars.
M-2510: The seeds have white spots [...] This trait distinguishes it from the other varieties[...] Grows well on calcareous soil. [...] (notice: seeds are mealy, not hard! In the soil in the village – light brown rendzina) [...] Claims it is a local wheat, ancient variety.
M-2002: "Black Dibiya, Dibiya Samra"
M-2049: "Home of Al-hHajji Muhamad Kasem Abu Uzawid. All from the area of بني نعيم (Masafer Bani Na'im)"
M-2069: "Could be Dibiya Safra"
M-2249: "Considered ancient variety [...] Considered drought-resistant. 100 kernels per stalk. The stalk is longer than the Tani cultivar and contains more seeds. The Naimi seeds are bigger and longer. Considered to be an ancient variety."
M-2267: "Good elasticity, a hard wheat. Multiple seeds if any in the flour, some yellowish."
M-2476: "Claims to be originally from Jordan, but imported long ago from the Balkan area. A hard wheat, short kernel, glazed berry, hard. (Area of Amman, Al-Salt etc.) Very old, from the times of his grandfather etc. (from the time of the Turks). Claims it is better for baking due to the elasticity of the dough and its flavor. Dough color white."
M-2478: "The origin of this variety is ambiguous, as well as it names."
A special thanks to Dr. Roi Ben-David from the Department for Plant Sciences, Vegetable and Field Crops; Dr. Einav Mayzlish Gati from the Office of Deputy Director for Research and Development, Israel Plant Gene Bank; and PhD candidate Sivan Frankin, who works on the preservation and characterization of the collection’s heirloom varieties.