Monday, July 25, 2016

Farm Bulletin: Farm Store Day and Renaming Frikeh

It was a big step for Ayers Creek Farm to leave the farmers' market to focus on its restaurant clients, but, not wanting to have their loyal customers doing without pantry staples, they decided to hold occasional farm days featuring the crops coming in from the fields. One of those much-clamored-for staples is the farm's frikeh, a green wheat that is harvested and "parched," a process that burns the outer husk of the grain and lends a smoky undertone when it is cooked. As contributor Anthony Boutard explains, this year frikeh has been rechristened as parched green wheat.

We will have an open farm day this Sunday, the 31st of July, from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. (The subsequent farm day will be scheduled in a couple of weeks.) These open days are crop-driven and will occur from time to time into October.

We will have Chesters and Triple Crown blackberries by pre-order only. We will need all berry orders by noon on Friday (7/29). We will be packing them into half-flats (6 pints) at $20 each. When ordering please indicate the number of half flats so as to avoid confusion.

No, it won't be just berries. We will also harvest fenugreek, purslane and amaranth. Likely some green gage plums. In the pantry category, we will have Wapato favas, dry beans (Dutch Bullet, Black Turtle, Black Basque), genuine Gaston mustard, parched green wheat neé frikeh, cornmeal, popcorn and preserves.

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Parched Green Wheat neé Frikeh

Last autumn, we were approached by a staff member working with an aid organization located in Lebanon. They were helping a group of freekeh producers and wanted to subvert the increasing supply of "fake" freekeh. We had seen problem as well. Manufacturers crush regular wheat, sometimes dying it green, and sell it as the food known as freekeh. Often it has a nasty, stuffy odor. Interestingly, around the same time the agency approached us, I had a chef describe to me some some beautiful bright green freekeh they had purchased. They were surprised it was so much greener than ours and said it must be the effect of "terroir." A bottle of green dye, more likely.

Parching the wheat.

The recent research into freekeh's the health benefits has generated increased interest in the food, and an industry dedicated to avoiding the true work and craft of producing it. The agency wanted us to participate in the creation of an international definition of freekeh. The United States hosts the Codex Committee on Cereals, Pulses and Legumes. The definition would be published in the international food code, Codex Alimentarius.

We wrote the letter quoted below, which outlined our history with the food, and a proposal. Interestingly, as we though about the name of the food, we decided to drop the Arabic transliteration we had been using, and just describe the food in plain English: parched green wheat. That is what it is. Anthony has not received a reply to the letter, a pity because all of us would have enjoyed the visit, we are sure.

Threshing the parched grain.

"I am finally finishing up the late autumn farming tasks, including planting wheat for next year's production of frikeh. I decided to hold off answering your inquiry because I want to detail a plan that might help bring attention to your efforts.

"As the post that led you to Ayers Creek explained, we have been producing high quality frikeh since 2003, and have sold tons of the parched grain just within the small metropolitan area of Portland, Oregon. I will add that frikeh production is a small part of a larger enterprise that produces hull-less barley, milling corn, chickpeas, dry beans, soy and favas, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. We sell to restaurants within the city and a few further afield. Interestingly, none of our customers are traditional Middle Eastern restaurants, and most of the people who buy it were introduced to frikeh by us. Most have subsequently tried "Brand X" frikeh purchased in the stores, hoping to fill in the months when we run out, and found it inedible. The restaurants simply drop frikeh from their menus when our supply is gone. Our frikeh does have its own character shaped by us and our staff, and the people who buy from us. One of the advantages of knowing our customers by name.

Buttermilk, purslane and frikeh soup.

"The restaurants that buy our frikeh point to the breadth of its potential market. For example, we have a Japanese restaurant, Chef Naoko, that uses frikeh in its bento box salads. The restaurant provides bento boxes for the business-class lunch service on Delta's flights between Portland and Tokyo. Higgin's Restaurant is our first and biggest frikeh user, and it is hews to a northern French menu. Two classic Italian restaurants, Nostrana and Ava Gene's, serve frikeh-based dishes during the summer months. At Nostrana, frikeh is served as a pilaf and also in a very refreshing buttermilk and purslane soup. The fact that frikeh can draw these restaurants out of their standard ingredient list speaks to its appeal. It fits into any number of cuisines.

"At the market, we have several customers who enjoy frikeh with yogurt for breakfast. Our friend Linda Colwell serves it in a salad of home-canned Oregon albacore. Carol and I make a lamb tartar with frikeh. The lamb is coarsely ground, mixed with the frikeh in equal parts and seasoned with mint, lemon, olive oil, shallots and parsley. Inspired by raw lamb in kibbeh, though it is very different in texture.

Frikeh and albacore salad.

"With this experience in mind, I invite a group of the Lebanese frikeh makers you work with to visit us in Oregon. Portland is a market well-primed by us for appreciating quality frikeh, and it would give them an opportunity to meet a new group of customers that see beyond its genesis as a Middle Eastern ingredient. The chefs would have a good time. Provvista Foods has long tried to carry our frikeh, an overture we politely decline because we prefer to sell directly to our restaurant accounts. I have seen information on your freekeh and the grain looks good, though the pitch that frikeh is cheaper than quinoa detracts from the message. It sounds unnecessarily defensive, especially as frikeh is a delicious food on its own accord. Sounds like  a pitch for generic versus branded medicine rather than food—it is just as much a superfood, but cheaper. A week with fresh voices who love the ingredient would improve the message.

I am sure we could get a good write-up describing frikeh makers a world apart meeting each other, likely with good national coverage. We have a strong National Public Radio affiliate (Oregon Public Broadcasting) here that might see it as an interesting story with nice blend of local and international flavor. Our friend, Deborah Madison, is a longtime devotee of frikeh and may have some insights into how we could make the meeting an entertaining and compelling story. Locally, Linda Colwell, mentioned earlier, is the farm's Melete, Muse of Occasion, and could help us put together a good visit. Most recently, we hosted 70 attendees of 'Organicology' and about 80 legume researchers from around the world from the Bean Improvement Cooperative.

Frikeh tabbouli (recipe here).

The visit could include a stop in the San Francisco area. Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo has a great deal of experience working with farmers from Mexico who supply him some of the beans and corn his store carries. He may have some excellent ideas about marketing frikeh in the United States. Both Ranch Gordo and Ayers Creek have done a good job of making some pretty humdrum staples like corn, barley and beans interesting. Over many years, we have sold frikeh to Boulette's Larder in San Francisco, and perhaps the delegation could try their culinary treatment of frikeh.

Although I have no general qualms about amending various codices to include a definition of frikeh, I do know that people buy on the positive. Having a government agency define an ingredient will not improve sales or expand interest in the grain. Both Ranch Gordo and Ayers Creek produce and sell premium beans and grains successfully in a market where there is a flood of cheaper alternatives by focusing on quality and character. At Ayers Creek, we also shy away from all health claims. I think the overused jargon surrounding health benefit claims for all sorts of commodities creates a white noise of claims that detracts from the pitch. When people return to buy more frikeh, they describe that special smoky, sensuous and grassy quality in the grain and how they served it, not some tenuous health benefit that has given them a bit more skip in their step.

Anyway, we are extending this offer, and would love to host a group of fellow frikeh/freekeh makers. If, over time, you want to amend the FGIS Codex to include a definition of frikeh/freekeh, I would be happy to write a collegial letter in support, but I am not interested in taking the lead on such an effort. Even a flood of really awful fakes would not have any effect on our sales. Indeed, the more awful, the better, because they simply amplify the quality people have come to expect from our frikeh."

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