29 October, 2010

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 2

backdate: 26 October

Agronomist Anders Borgen was instrumental in creating our itinerary, and thanks to a change of plans we got to spend some time with him after our morning visit to Foulum research center. In a backyard garden plot saturated with common bunt (Tilletia tritici) inoculum, Anders is selecting about 200 heirloom wheat varieties for disease resistance.

Because of bunt infection patterns, he tells us, commercial varieties must have "vertical resistance", that is, qualitative resistance based on a single gene (either they die or they don't, and only those that don't are considered fit for cultivation) - as opposed to horizontal resistance, a multiple-gene-controlled, quantitative response to infection. While horizontal resistance means plants will tolerate infection (not die), vertical resistance is easily toppled by pathogen mutations (i.e. more sensitive to natural selection), so Anders strives to select varieties which have both, creating "pyramidal resistance". If bunt can't kill plant, it can't select for susceptibility. Not sure if that explanation makes sense - but it's as simple as i can offer, and writing it clarified plant pathology concepts i didn't quite grasp as an undergrad.

It's rare to meet a man who takes such pleasure in his work as Anders. Which is to say that while explaining the breeding and selection projects, and later indoors excitedly showing us blue and purple wheat and unusual varieties of malting barley, he spoke with a sort of glee, laughing like a kid when he was excited about something.

That kind of passion has a quieter, but no less thorough manifestation in Jøm Larsen, director of Aurion bakery and mill. Our most northerly stop, in Hjørring, Aurion spoke to original 'back to the land' values. Milling biodynamic- and organic-certified grain since 1980, Jøm's work is driven by a passion for the living grain, and an ethic of fair, stable prices to producers (higher in low markets, though lower in high ones). It would be naive to say that Aurion's values trumped market savvy, for like the rest it had a well-developed niche and line of value-added products, in this case chocolate. The breads, though, spoke for themselves.

Since car trouble struck our caravan, we'd arrived in Hjørring late, and it was well into the evening when our talk and tour were finished. Jøm ushered us back to the meeting room with its long table, and passed around several breads - there was a rye risen for two days and baked at low temperature over night, among others, by far the best breads we tasted in Denmark. Then his wife Inger surprised us with two casseroles, an egg-and-celeriac dish and a root vegetable bake. It was modest fare, stretched among nearly two dozen, but we shared it all around and were enveloped in a welcoming warmth. It was very late when we arrived once again at Kalø.