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  • Hard Red heritage wheat milled at high extraction. Great protein and performance. A Slow Food Ark of Taste wheat.

    Red Fife is one of the world’s most famous wheats. As ‘Red Fife’ it’s not quite 200 years old, a Canadian wheat that spread across the North American prairie in the second half of the 19th Century. As ‘Halychanka’, the landrace wheat from which it stems, Red Fife is much older – Halychanka hails from Galicia, an old region that encapsulates Southern Poland/Western Ukraine. Galicia has been found to be the source of several notable bread wheats selected as key parents at dawn of wheat breeding, not in the least Red Fife.

    The long straw, Hard Red Spring wheat is perhaps one of the setting stones for the North American dominance of the global grain trade. From the second half of the 19th Century, the New World stepped up supply into Europe of high volumes of competitively priced high-quality wheat. Canada somewhat mirrored the United States’ Manifest Destiny expansion west, and Red Fife eventually dominated huge tracts of prairie both sides of the border, just as the US. ascended from agrarian society to great power by and eventual dominance over the globe.

    Red Fife is subject to much mythology. The story goes that, in 1842, Upper Canada farmer David Fife planted a few seeds sent by an old compatriot in Scotland. Fife had written to ask he send samples of good wheat seed. His friend is said to have lifted a handful of kernels from a grain ship luffed up at the port in Glasgow before tucking them away in the lining of his hat. The ship was marked Danzig, the then German, now Polish port of Gdansk.

    Fife is said to have received the seed from his friend in Spring. Not knowing whether it was a Spring or Winter variety requiring vernalisation, he sowed the seeds regardless. Most of it never ripened, though one seed threw three heads – perhaps it was a Spring wheat mixed in with winter wheats. Or like some winter wheats I’ve seen here, it shot a spike anyway, somehow sensing that this was its last shot at survival and an epigenetic switch was thrown.

    From the three heads, Fife sowed the seeds again the following year. Impressed by its disease resistance in comparison to the Russian wheats (Ladoga, Siberian, White Russian etc) largely grown in Canada at the time, he eventually, got together a significant quantity and could distribute it to his neighbours. Work got out via agricultural magazines such as ‘The Country Gentleman and Cultivator’ about its yield and quality, and soon it was the key variety grown in North America.

    The origin story was embroidered further along the way – Marauding cattle devoured almost all the seed from the first year’s crop, but Fife’s wife Jane Beckett saved the one plant with the three heads. Or three heads from a plant of five heads, depends who is telling the story… As fanciful as this seems, I can believe stories like this, knowing the tenuous path to growing enough seed over several seasons for a particular line to be secure in quantity. Cattle attack is familiar to us here in Tuerong, though bird attack more devastating – we’ve lost several lines due to birds, mainly rosellas, tucking in earlier than we’ve dared harvest. I’ve since learnt that if you harvest when the penduncle (the bit of the stem just below the head) starts changing colour in early senescence, the seed will still be viable, despite the grain still being at ‘soft dough stage’.

    By the 1870s Red Fife was grown widely across North America. But within 50 years it was well out of favour, with higher yielding, earlier ripening and more disease resistant varieties bred from Red Fife supplanting their parent. Red Fife went from ubiquity to relic in less than 100 years, though this lifespan is significantly longer than wheat varieties today.

    For a more replete story of its origin (and its descendent Marquis) look up the Agriculture and AgriFood Canada publication available free online: ‘From a Single Seed – Tracing Marquis Wheat Success Story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine’.

    In the late 80s and 90s, Red Fife underwent a revival, just as the broader wheat gene pool was at its narrowest. In British Columbia, folklorist and heirloom seed aficionado Sharon Rempel planted a few seeds as part of The Heritage Wheat Project. A few chefs showed interest in the story of Red Fife, and Sharon got them in touch with Saskatchewan farmers Marc Loiselle and Walter Walchuk, to whom she had given seed that they had in turn bulked up. Red Fife was listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. The revival of Red Fife in some ways led the global interest in heirloom wheat varieties, and an interest in accessing quality traits that have fallen by the way side over the intervening years.

    We have grown a few tonnes of Red Fife this year, having imported a couple of lines from Canada and the US five years ago, slowly bulking up our seedstock from about 100 seeds. Last Spring, we sowed about a hectare. At the time I thought it might not finish well, given the BOM had mentioned El Nino and a ‘hot, dry finish’ and me having sown so late, but as it turns out the BOM were wrong, at least for this part of Australia. The late summer rain has been perfect for its growth and eventual grain fill period. It looks great in the can – the grains are bold, vitreous little jewels, just how I like it. Flour has come up very white, like Marquis, even at high extraction. Shame it yields like a 200 year old wheat. We are baking with it this week. Perhaps the first Red Fife loaf in Australia for some time.

    Red Fife 1840 heritage wheat flour

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