Saturday, November 12, 2011

Farm Bulletin: A Connecticut Yankee in Chef Barattini's Kitchen

This year's fall colors have been particularly magnificent due to high summer rainfall causing leaves to lose their chlorophyll more slowly in the fall, resulting in increased intensity of color in the foliage. These facts don't diminish our enjoyment, as contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm demonstrates most ably in this treatise on flint corn.

Our 2003 order to High Mowing Seeds included five pounds of 'Roy's Calais Flint' corn. The catalogue offered a simple endorsement: "Makes good cornbread." It reminded us that we had not enjoyed flavorful cornbread for a long time, and that the yellow stuff in a box was little more than a gummy matrix for cheese or a substrate for savory toppings, itself bereft of any semblance of true corniness. Ours was a classic impulse purchase, with no clear idea of what making cornmeal entailed, or whether the catalogue entry was just another gross exaggeration aimed at rank sentimentalists.  As it happened, the flint corn yielded a good crop that September, we learned to grind corn with a stone mill and flavorful cornbread returned to our kitchen.

A flint corn kernel.

We are often asked what "flint" means. The bulk of the corn kernel is the starchy endosperm; the carefully stored source of energy and nutrition for the new plant when it germinates. The starchy endosperm ranges from soft to hard, depending upon how much protein is packaged up with the starch. Popcorn and flint corn have the hardest kernels because they have a lot of protein packed among the starch granules. The primary difference between the two is that popcorn kernels are smaller, about half the size of the flints. Popcorn and flint corn are the most flavorful and nutritious types of corn. Dent and flour corn form the other end of the spectrum. They are soft and much easier to mill, and definitely sweeter, yet we find they lack the satisfying flavor we seek.

Flint corn leaf.

"Roy's Calais Flint" belongs to a cluster of flint corn varieties that are collectively called the "Northern Flints," originally found on both sides of the Appalachian range, extending from the mid-Alantic states northwards to the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada. The Northern Flints first show up in the archeological record around 1000 AD, and were a staple in New England before the Pilgrims arrived. Because Northern Flint remained isolated from other corn races, the variation was derived from selection of mutations within the population, rather than a genetic exchange with other corn races from other places. Consequently, there are several characteristics which allow a person familiar with the race to identify it wherever it is growing. The plants are short, three to six feet high, sometimes beautifully pigmented and produce one or more side shoots, called tillers, that often terminate in an ear with a kernels. The cylindrical ears are long with eight rows of kernels typical, though sometimes there are ten or twelve rows. All of the kernels on the plant are the same color, and the yields are crappy.

Color variations in flints.

The meal produced by the Northern Flints is either pearly white or yellow-orange, with the white meal types often associated with the coastal regions where fish dominated the diet. The yellow meal is rich in beta-carotenes which accents its corny flavor. Kernels with a red skin (pericarp)  have better cold soil germination and ripen earlier, so they are favored in cooler areas and higher elevations where the season is short. Red kernels produce yellow meal with the red flecks you see in our cornmeal.

In 1924, the Connecticut Agricultural Station published a report on corn in the state. The report evaluated 42 named varieties of flint corn collected from 70 farms and seed stores across the state. Although unintended, Bulletin 124 provided the obituary for flint corn in New England. In fact, its primary author, geneticist D.F. Jones, was one of the architects of the F-1 Hybrid Corn Belt Dents that dominate modern corn production. In a decade or so, the Northern Flint corn would be functionally extinct in its original range, with a few examples preserved by the odd dogged traditionalist. For the most part, modern New Englanders have no idea about this legacy and have never tasted a good flint corn, with the possible exception of Rhode Islanders who have preserved their "White Cap" flint in statute as the legally correct corn for making Jonny Cake.

Various forms of Queen Ears.

Roy Fair of Calais, Vermont was one of those traditionalists, and following his death local farmers provided Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds with some his flint seed. In our experience from working with this corn for nine seasons, what makes Roy's remarkable is that fact it carries a genetic library of the Northern Flint genetic code, rather than a tightly drawn selection of traits, such as those found in other flints like King Phillip, Longfellow or "Rhode Island White Cap." In our seed production, we have tried to preserve as much of this genetic exuberance as possible while seeking out desirable commercial characteristics. To ward off the displeasure of the gods, ancient pottery makers created a deliberate flaw in their work so as to avoid the harsh penalties of perfection, likewise we include in Roy's genetic mix, or grex, the occasional "queen ear," one that bears several branches and odd kernels. Many years ago, our staff explained to us that queen ears provide good fortune to the milpa (the corn field), and we don't want Ceres angry either.

Italian mais otto file.

Although few people in its natal land are familiar with Northern Flint, various selections of this landrace are considered culinary treasures in northern Italy, Rhine Valley of Austria, Switzerland (especially in the cantons of Ticino, St. Gallen and Graubünden), on the Japanese island of Hokkaido where it is too far north for rice cultivation and in many other places. The white flint selection grown in the Rhine Valley of Switzerland is called Rheintaler Ribelmais and is protected with an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) designation. In the northern Italian valleys and southern Switzerland, Northern Flint corn is mais otto file, or eight row corn. At regional fairs, selected Northern Flint ears are proudly displayed along with the ground corn.

Bean, kale and cornmeal soup.

On this month's menu at Chef Aurelio Barattini's restaurant Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, you will likely find Infarinata, a soup of cornmeal, beans and kale. As he notes in his blog, he uses an eight row flint corn grown in the valley around Garfagnana. Some historians credit Giovanni di Verranzzano for bringing the Northern Flint to Europe. He was a warrior seeking fortune and fame, not agricultural improvement. I suspect the Northern Flint was sent back to family in Europe repeatedly by farmers and gardeners who enjoyed the grain in their new home.

In western New England, northern Italian immigrants, experts with stone, settled to work the marble and granite quarries. I grew up and went to school with their grandchildren and great grandchildren, and I prefer to think of those quarry workers sending back a package of beautiful and flavorful corn to their family. In fact, Oregon is just about as distant from the Northern Flints' origins as Gafagnana, and it took a while to show up here. Regardless of the how it got to Europe, it is great to see this Yankee grain treasured by farmers and chefs far distant from its land of origin. When in Lucca, be sure to stop and have a meal at Chef Baratinni's restaurant.

Addendum: Someone could write a book about how to grow and enjoy real corn, America's original grain. Unfortunately, the experts in publishing do not believe there is a market for such a book at the moment, so you all will have to settle for the corn itself. Costs less per pound than a book and you can eat it, nourishing both the body and mind, a better deal by far.

Bean, Kale, and Polenta Soup
There are various versions of this classic northern Italian soup, Infarinata, that bring dry beans, cornmeal and kale together with a bit of pork. In a conversation over lunch, Linda Colwell reminded us that La Jota of Trieste is also a variation on this rustic soup, using sauerkraut instead of kale, and fragrant with cumin. Our friend and former neighbor, China Tresemer, helped us put together this recipe.

The recipe calls for unsmoked but cured pork: guanciale or pancetta, but in a pinch, a piece of salt pork will do. You can make this dish without the meat as well. Likewise, savoy cabbage, rocket or escarole can be used for the greens. For beans, we use Borlotto Lamon which has a deep nutty flavor and pleasant sweetness. The water the bean cooks in yields a delicious broth. There are several reasons why this variety is not more available commercially: Pole beans cost more to grow. The Lamon must be handpicked and has just three or four beans per pod compared to the usual five to seven. It also ripens late, splits in the rain and is prone to viruses. Mere details—other than that it is perfect, the most glorious of the cranberry beans.

Serves 4

3 c. (525g) Borlotto Lamon dry beans
4 oz. (100g) unsmoked but cured pork, minced
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, minced
1 onion, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 sage leaves, fresh or dried, minced
1 c. canned crushed tomatoes, preferably your own
Salt and pepper
8 stalks of kale, collards or lacinato kale, rib removed, minced
1 1/2 cups (210 g) medium-coarse flint cornmeal
Good olive oil

Soak the dry beans in plenty of water overnight. Drain the beans, add fresh water to cover the beans by about 2 inches (5 cm), bring to a boil, then turn down the heat, and simmer until tender, 40 to 90 minutes.

In a soup pot, sauté the pork in the olive oil until it begins to turn golden. Add the minced carrot, onion, and celery, and sauté gently until the vegetables are soft. Add the garlic and the minced sage leaves. Add the tomatoes. Cook until the mixture thickens a bit, about 12 minutes. Add salt to taste. Chop the kale leaves and add to the pot. Add the beans and their liquor, topping the soup off with more water to create a good broth. Season with salt to taste.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer. While the soup is simmering, trickle in the cornmeal and stir occasionally until the polenta is tender, about 40 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Serve the thick soup in shallow bowls with a good ribbon of the olive oil on top.

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