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John Letts miller of Lamas Fayre Heritage Flour

A picture of John Letts the miller

Baking is coming full circle and there is a heritage cereal revolution coming. Heritage flour, and heirloom varieties are the buzzwords on baking forums, social media and at this year’s World Bread Awards the winning sourdough was made with the Heritage Blend milled by John Letts. This rapidly increasing interest in using flours milled from the grains that would have been a common sight in our fields before modern plant breeding introduced and the hybridised we see today seems to be driven from several directions. From a growing body of people who have wheat intolerances, who find that heritage flour is easier to digest, to chefs and bakers who are discovering that these ancient grains make really delicious bread and from a need to discover old ways of growing grain to make modern farming more sustainable. 

John Letts, who produces the Lammas Fayre range of heritage flour near Oxford is one of the key leading figures in this revolution. He can be described as many things - farmer certainly, master thatcher, baker and archaeobotanist. Above all though, he is an enthusiastic ambassador for the grains that were grown and milled to produce the flour used in making the daily loaf hundreds of years ago.

On his small farm he specialises in growing a range of old varieties of cereal and some of these, such as Neolithic blend goes back to what our ancestors were eating over 10,000 years ago. John produces a range of flours that have been categorised into historic time periods, including flours such as Iron Age Blend containing Emmer wheat and a Medieval blend of wheat and rye known as Maslin. With more than two decades of experience growing these ancient crops, he has learned not only the secrets of their successful cultivation, but also how to process the grains to produce high quality flours. These flours are in increasing demand from artisan and home bakers who are keen to try something new.

a picture of John Letts corn harvest

John’s interest in plants started early. Even as a young boy, growing up on his family’s farm in Canada, he would be out gardening and collecting seeds while his friends were off playing ice hockey. This preoccupation with seeds and crops led him to study environmental science and botany at university, setting him on the path to a career in plant breeding. Luckily for the world of heritage baking, this career path was interrupted by a move to London and a Masters degree in archaeobotany. 

In the course of his research, a chance event resulted in John discovering an amazing and unexpected record of agricultural history… a discovery that had him spending a good deal of time on rooftops over the next few years. A shoebox full of wheat, given to him by a friend, proved to be an insight into the grains grown up to 600 years ago. The wheat had come from a thatched roof – old, sooty and no longer viable as seed, but the discovery that these ancient roofs contained so much historical information was a major breakthrough. When the roofs had been originally thatched in medieval times, a base layer was put down and topped with a weather-proof layer. Thirty years later, when the thatch needed renewing, the base layer was not removed but simply added to. This method of thatching meant that over the years layer upon layer of straw, along with seeds and weeds from the field in which it was grown, was built up. John’s rooftop archaeology discovered cereals that we don’t see in modern fields. These grains have been pushed to one side by more uniform varieties that are easier to grow (albeit at the cost of high levels of chemical input) and are better suited to modern harvesting methods.

Having discovered some of the grains that filled English fields hundreds of years ago, John’s next project was to try to recreate a medieval wheat field. Although the grains of cereal he had found in the ancient thatch were just too old to be grown, seed banks provided a source of at least some of the varieties he was looking for. John collected together samples of these seeds, created a medieval blend and sowed them on a small piece of borrowed farmland.

John’s mission to reintroduce heritage grains to modern bakers isn’t simply an academic exercise though. He’s keen to promote the benefits of growing a genetically diverse crop. “A key feature of a medieval wheat field is that genetically every plant was a little bit different”, says John “each plant functioned a bit differently – different tolerance to cold or wet, different root depth or stem height.” It’s these differences that make the ancient cereals a more resilient crop, something that might prove to be important in a world where extreme weather fluctuations are becoming more common.

Over a decade after planting that first field, John now grows an ever expanding range of ancient cereals on his own patch of land at Heritage Harvest farm.  His low input, organic approach suits these old varieties, and he’s busy researching the best ways to harvest and process the grains. As John points out, “you can’t make a living growing cereals on a small scale” and that’s where his contacts in the baking world come in, helping him develop high value products like bread, pasta and biscuits from his flour.

While the farm has to produce good yields and be economically viable, the environmental impact is also important to John. “I want to show that you can grow heritage cereals in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way” he says. Environmental benefits aside, John’s cereals have come almost full circle since he began researching them among the ancient thatched roofs. A by-product of growing heritage grains is the straw left behind once the crop has been harvested. The older, taller varieties produce a good length of straw that suits thatching much better than the short straw from modern varieties. Local thatchers now use John’s straw on the roofs of the county and beyond.

The next step in this big farming adventure is to integrate the cereal growing with some animals. Chickens and sheep would make a good addition to the rotation system, helping to clear weeds and eating the waste grain. John is aiming to create and integrated and sustainable system that can be used by other small-scale growers looking for a viable business model.

In the meantime, the Lammas Fayre range of flours is gaining a following among both home bread making enthusiasts and professional bakers and, as the revolution continues, we can look forward to experimenting with more ancient cereals, trying new recipes and eating more delicious bread.

Listen to more of John's story and outlook.

picture of milling outdoor area