In the Park LaBrea section of Los Angeles, southwest of Hollywood, sits the La Brea Bakery—home to all things gluten. It’s been a bad few years for bakeries like La Brea as the number of people identifying as gluten sensitive or intolerant continues to rise, pushing breads and baked goods out of fashion.
Books like Dr. William Davis's 2011 “Wheat Belly” have moved the dialogue about the health issues connected to gluten into the mainstream. The paleo diet trend, which avoids most grains, has also helped diminish bread’s popularity in recent years. But is bread really bad?
One of our oldest staples, bread, and wheat in particular, have been embraced in nearly every culture around the world; it accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s calories. Bread defines us in so many ways, as Michael Pollan explains in his 2013 book, “Cooked.” A loaf of bread “implies a whole civilization,” he writes. “It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant, and even microbial labor.”
How can something so intricately connected to humanity for so long become so vilified?
Travel to France or Italy, for example, and wheat products—bread, pasta, and even desserts—are as popular as ever. Even Oprah recently pledged her love for bread while promoting her success with Weight Watchers (she ate bread during her weight loss).
La Brea Bakery hopes the U.S. will revisit its relationship with gluten, in particular, with heirloom wheat.
“We looked at a lot of options,” Jonathan Davis, senior vice-president of culinary research and innovation at La Brea Bakery told me at a recent bread tasting at the bakery. “And we just loved everything about fortuna.”
Fortuna is the heirloom variety of wheat being grown exclusively for La Brea Bakery. In a parternship with Dean Folkvord, a third generation Montana wheat farmer, the bakery, which also sells in supermarkets across the U.S., aims to bring whole grains back to bread, and bread back to our tables.
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“It’s just such a staple food,” says Davis.
The fortuna wheat is found in three new breads from La Brea's Reserve line: Pain de Campagne with hints of rye, Struan, a nutty loaf with sesame seeds, and Fortuna, loaded with cracked fortuna wheat berries. They’re soft and sturdy breads with a crisp edge. The heirloom wheat adds a density and nuttiness that makes the breads noticeably distinguishable from flimsy over-processed white breads. This is bread with a story—“Wheat with a Purpose,” according to La Brea’s marketing campaign—and it’s a delicious one.
Diets evolve, there’s no question about that. While some have pointed to changes in bread hybrids as the cause of so much gluten sensitivity, the New Yorker reports that wheat hasn’t changed much in the last half-century. It’s not a genetically modified crop—unlike corn or soy.
Some experts suggest it may be changes in our microbiome—our gut bacterial colonies altered by other aspects of our modern diets—and not wheat itself that’s to blame.
“None of that, however, explains why so many people who don’t have celiac disease feel the need to give up gluten,” writes Michael Specter in the New Yorker.
Eschewing gluten is a phenomenon, much like kale’s mysterious rise to becoming King of Vegetables. And there’s no question that heavily processed, over-milled wheat isn’t doing any body any favors. But good, heirloom wheat? That’s something else entirely.
The new La Brea heirloom breads range in price from $8 to $10 and are available in select stores now.
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