This is the story of ‘Aragón 03’, a Spanish variety of wheat that almost disappeared had it not been for a small family that kept growing it year after year. Almost forgotten, it has been rediscovered and even chosen by one of the most influential North American chefs to breed it due to its great flavor. Above all, it makes amazing whole wheat breads.
A bit of truth
I will tell the story as I came to know it. It began as I was reading Stephen Yafa’s ‘Grain of truth”. I cannot describe how much I enjoyed this book. The author is the first person narrator in a quest for wisdom to answer the question of whether wheat/gluten is bad for health. There are some daring hypotheses at the end of book, and the author has his own biases. However, either if you are a professional/home baker, a foodie or simply are concerned about what you eat, this book is a must read. It is not a question of being ‘pro-gluten’ or ‘anti-gluten’. Rather, the book offers, among other extensively researched issues, a fierce criticism of the way wheat is grown, milled and processed these days.
In Chapter 9, ‘Flour power’, Yafa describes an event (he called it ‘Wheatstock’, as in Woodstock) where wheat farmers, artisans, bakers and scientists gathered in Northern California. Among the attendees and panelists were Harold McGee, the author of my favorite culinary bible, ‘On food and cooking’; super famous baker Chad Robertson, from Tartine Bakery; and geneticist and breeder Stephen Jones, director of the BreadLab and the WSU’s Research and Extension Center, near Seattle. Dr. Jones explained how he breeds wheat for flavor in WSU’s 80-acre experimental farm. One of his projects called my attention immediately: Dan Barber, the co-owner and chef of Blue Hill restaurants in New York/Stone Barns, asked Jones to cross and breed a Spanish heirloom wheat variety only grown in a small village in Northeastern Spain, called ‘Aragón 03’. I live in South Spain and never heard about that wheat. I asked some home bakers friends and neither did them.
It was time to buy some Aragón 03 wheat and try to figure out how on earth a famous New York chef knew about an almost forgotten wheat variety grown in such a remote and dry place in Spain.
Fish, foie gras and wheat
Dan Barber was named one of most influential people in the world by Time magazine. He has described his provoking ideas on food, agriculture and sustainability in several newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, in wonderful TED talks alternating research and deadpan humor, and in a book entitled ‘The Third Plate”.
I read the book and listened to his talks. I am not sure of whether Mr. Barber is a genius, a visionary, a naive person or a chef that found his gimmick. What I do know is that ‘The Third Plate’ is worth reading and full of inspiring stories that make you believe that there are indeed sustainable, ecological and ethical ways of producing food. Much to my amusement, there are several Spanish projects described in the book. A Time magazine’s correspondent in Spain, Lisa Abend, introduced Dan Barber to the sustainable aquiculture project at Veta La Palma in Andalucía, and to the ‘best foie gras in the world’ produced in the complete absence of force feeding in ‘La Patería de Sousa’ en Extremadura. The first two are also covered in the TED talks “How I felt in love with a fish”, and “A foie gras parable”. Regarding the wheat, Barber mentions in his book and in the MAD2 talk “The Taste of Bread” that “Wheat arrived at our restaurant kitchen as dead powder”. Lisa Abend introduced him to “an old Spanish variety of wheat she had read about, which had all but disappeared in the past fifty years”. Aragón 03 was described to Lisa as a wheat variety full of flavor that “nourishes itself with the morning dew.” Barber decided to contact Steve Jones, the geneticist and director of the BreadLab, to breed Aragón 03 to further improve its wonderful traits. Jones and his team crossed Aragón 03 (acting as the female) with a local variety called ‘Jones Fife’ to yield a new variety named ‘Barber Wheat’. I do not know how is the project doing. I guess that one obvious thing they did was to adapt Aragón 03 (which grows in very dry soils) to the contrasting New York State climate. Regarding flavor, a Lars Peder Hedberg wrote in an article in White Guide that whereas Aragón 03 wheat (not bread) has notes of chocolate and hazelnut, Barber wheat tastes of apricot.
But let’s finish this already too long introduction. It is time for me to introduce you to the Marcén family and how the Aragón 03 wheat was rediscovered.
Some cry in the wilderness; some others sow wheat there
We are now in ‘Los Monegros’, a region in Northeastern Spain close to Zaragoza, in the autonomous community of Aragón. According to Köppen climate classification system it has a ‘cold semi-arid’ (BSk) climate (Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia or Denver in USA also have a BSk climate score). Since Los Monegros region is surrounded by three mountain ranges, the wind that reaches the area is warm, has very low relative humidity and increases plant water stress dramatically (Foehn wind). For instance, the village of Leciñena (where our story takes place) gets about 420 mm of rain per year, whereas the evapotranspiration is as much as 820 mm/year. This results in a humidity deficit and hence in persistent aridity.
Juan José Marcén was born in Leciñena. He was a physician and a very curious and encouraging person. He believed that actual bread in Aragón had lost its flavor because the traditional wheat variety grown in the region, named ‘Aragón 03’, was no longer sown since the 1980’s because its yield was lower than that of modern and subsidized varieties. One day, as he was walking thorough the neighbor city of Perdiguera, he met an old couple in their 80s who were still growing Aragón 03 on a small plot of land just because they were nostalgic about it and did not want to loose it. They gave Marcén two bags of seeds, who later on was able to convince other farmers to grow it. Aragón 03 was in the verge of extinction, but now it has been rescued from oblivion.
It turned out that Aragón 03 exhibited a fantastic draught tolerance due to its deep roots and its ability to “drink the morning dew”. The exact origin is unclear, but it seems that Aragón 03 wheat was selected in the 1920-1930’s by crossing and breeding local wheat varieties such as ‘catalán de monte’ or ‘caspino’. In addition to be resistant to draught, it was chosen for its great capacity to withstand dry and hot winds (the aforementioned Foehn wind). It was named ‘Aragón’ for the Spanish autonomous community where it was selected, and ‘03’ for the Research Center in charge of the breeding, called ‘CRIDA 03’.
Juan José Marcén wanted to create a foundation to make Aragón 03 known, valued and grown again. Unfortunately, he passed away in June 2000. A bunch of enthusiastic people known as ‘The Forcañada Group” (Javier Bargüés, Roberto Macén, Daniel Marcén, Mercedes Murillo, Paloma Fernández and Concha Germán) took over Marcén’s projects, attending to local market and fairs to make Aragón 03 known. Ten years ago, part of the Forcañada Group decided to start a family based bakery business. They named it ‘Ecomonegros’.
“We want to bake bread”
“Sit down, are you sure about it?”
This is what Daniel Marcén (a farmer, and a cousin of the late Juan José) said to his two daughters after they told him they wanted to start a bakery business. His caution is understandable, since neither of the two sisters had any previous experience in agriculture nor bread making. Ana Marcén, the elder sister, studied Greek and Latin and ended up in an orchestra as a singer; her sister Laura studied engineering and worked as a waitress to make her living. They decided to start Ecomonegros not only to bake bread with Aragón 03, but also to control the whole production process: grow the wheat, cleaning and storage, milling, baking and selling the goods in physical stores and via internet.
Some people told them they were crazy for running a business like that in a (so arid) place like Los Monegros. But Aragón 03 wheat is perfectly adapted to that region, and Aragonese people are famous for their stubbornness. They started their small company just ten years ago with an initial investment of 250.000€ (ca. 280.000$). On the third year they broke even, and now they can re-invest profits to further grow the business. Laura is in the process of making a documentary film to tell the story of Aragón 03 in great detail. They got several environmental awards, British BBC has interviewed them, they have created jobs in a rural arid area, and gave Aragon’s bread its flavor back.
On the other hand, Aragón 03 is now included in the ‘Ark of Taste’, a project of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity created by Slow Food International and Slow Food Italy, to identify, catalogue and preserve food biodiversity.
Love at first bake
Ecomonegros sells whole Aragón 03 flour. I wanted to experiment also with medium-extraction flour, and therefore I bought grains and milled them at home in a ‘Fibidus’ home mill from Komo. In addition, having grains allowed me to add them cracked and scalded to the dough to enhance flavor. I used the flour as such to make whole wheat breads, or sifted to remove some, but not all, the bran while keeping the germ. In the latter case, I got an extraction of roughly 85%, which ranges in between a T80 and a T110 flour.
The rheological values of Aragón 03 flour are the following: dough strength (W), 62; dough tenacity (P), 33; dough extensibility (L), 103; P/L ratio, 0.3. This means that the flour is rather weak and has low tenacity. By way of Laura Marcén, I had access to the results of some baking tests carried out by the Basque Institute for Research and Agricultural Development (Neiker) with different flours including Aragón 03. Indeed, the impressions about the dough among the bakers involved (an association called ‘Baserriko ogia’) was in agreement with the rheological data: “beautiful dough, but it does not hold itself”, “very extensible with low tenacity”, “dough does not develop proper volume” or “loaves had low height”. However, regarding flavor, Aragón 03 ranked the best.
Ecomonegros’ breads show a decent oven spring, as seen on the BBC clip. I do not know their formula, but at home one can take advantage of some tricks when working with ‘weak’ and extensible types of dough to increase their tenacity: i) use of a stiff sourdough starter (mild acidity strengthens gluten network, as do stiff preferments); ii) scald 5-10% of the flour (which helps to increase tenacity); iii) scant kneading; iv) include some fresh orange juice (ascorbic acid –vitamin C– oxidizes to dehydroascorbic acid, which favors the formation of bonds between gluten proteins). Taking into account how weak and extensible this flour is, I think I was able to get a nice oven spring by including these modifications.
I have to say that, in my opinion, it is not worth using sifted Aragón 03 flour. It is true that I got better volumes and a bit more open crumb, but at the cost of decreasing flavor intensity. Also, I was not satisfied when retarding fermentation in the fridge, either during bulk fermentation or in the final proof. However, I did not test this extensively. In general, I obtained better results when retarding bulk fermentation, but as I said I favor fermentation at room temperature.
Regarding flavor, it is really fantastic. I have used whole-wheat flours with similar or even deeper flavor, but Aragón 03’s is fruity rather than nutty. In addition to flavor, the remarkable characteristics of Aragón 03 are both the intense aroma of the bread one or two days after baking (it’s intense almost as rye, and indeed you can detect fruity notes) and the light texture of the crumb (so smooth you cannot believe you are eating a whole-wheat bread). One can increase flavor by including cracked, toasted and scalded grains in the dough. In fact, that made my favorite bread. Aragón 03 is truly outstanding wheat.
And finally, here come the loaves
I will describe the formula for a total of 600 gr of Aragón 03 flour (either sifted or whole, but I preferred whole). The approach I have followed is my customary for weak/low tenacity flours. The stiff starter has 60% hydration, is made using 30% of total flour (180 gr), and is built in two phases to increase its activity while keeping sourness to a minimum. Scalded flour represents 7.5% of total flour (45 gr). Final hydration is 80% (63% water and 17% fresh orange juice). Temperature is kept at 24-25ºC (75-77ºF) during the whole fermentation process (preferment, bulk and final proof).
Mix 45 gr of flour with 90 gr of boiling water. Stir well and allow it to cool to ~24ºC (75ºF). It can be prepared the day before and then stored it in the fridge.
Initial refreshment: mix 55 gr of flour + 25 gr water + 10 gr of your customary sourdough starter. Leave it overnight (8-10 hours).
Starter I: mix 50 gr flour + 30 gr water + 48 gr of the refreshed starter. Allow it to rise until it doubles in height (use as a reference the base line, not the tip of the dome; see picture). It takes about 1 hour and a half.
Starter II: mix together the entire starter I + 100 gr flour + 60 gr water. We have now 180 gr of flour and 108 gr of water. Raise until it doubles as before, which takes a bit more than 2 hours (temperature should be kept always at 24-25ºC).
Mix together the scalded flour + the whole starter II + 375 gr of flour + 100 gr fresh orange juice + 182 gr of water. Allow to rest for 15 min and add 12 gr of salt.
Very brief. Three rounds of 1 minute each with 3-5 minutes breaks in between.
About 2-2.5 hours, with two folds. You should see signs of fermentation after 1 hour.
Shaping and final proof
Divide the dough into two equal portions (or just leave it whole if you want to bake a bigger loaf). Preshape round, allow it to rest for 15 minutes, shape and transfer to banneton/s.
Just follow your favorite procedure. After baking is done, leave loaves inside the oven with the heat off for 15 minutes more.
It is worth waiting until next day to enjoy these wonderful breads.
This is a fine example of a semi-integral loaf and crumb:
Crumb of sifted Aragón 03 vs whole:
Finally, my favorite one: whole Aragón 03 bread which was flavor-boosted by including 20% of cracked, toasted and scalded grains. In this case I did not add any scalded flour. The crumb is clearly more compact, but taste was indeed superb.
I am indebted to Adolf Peroy for ‘Grain of truth”. It inspired this post, made me think a lot about man-wheat relationships, and reassured me on the benefits and beauty of whole flour.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Laura and Ana Marcén for providing me with valuable information and documents concerning their family and Aragón 03 wheat; for the pictures included in this post; and for their charm and patience in answering all my (many) questions. Just this week they have celebrated Ecomonegros’ tenth anniversary. I wish them every success and happiness. Uncle Juan José can be proud of them.
Grain of Truth. The real case for and against wheat and gluten. Stephen Yafa, 2015. Avery Publishing.
The Third Plate: field notes on the future of food. Dan Barber, 2014 (re-edited in 2015). Penguin Books.
How I felt in love with a fish. Dan Barber, 2010. TED talk (link).
A foie gras parable. Dan Barber, 2008. TED talk (link).
The taste of bread. Dan Barber, 2012. Talk at MAD2 (link).
The two sisters running a bakery in a desert. Carolina Valladares. BBC News, 2014 (link).
On the quest for a more flavorful, sustainable future. Lars Peder Hedberg, 2016. White Guide (link)
Trigo Aragón 03: cuando la innovación se halla mirando al pasado. Carmen Serrano, 2016. Heraldo de Aragón (link).
El proyecto Marcén y el rescate del trigo Aragón 03. Grupo Forcañada. Revista “La fertilidad de la tierra”, 2000 (PDF).
Panificación de las variedades de trigo blando ensayadas por Neiker, campaña 2003-2004. Federación de Agricultura Ecológica de Euskadi.
El pan que alimentaba a Aragón. Ana Sirvent. Aragón Digital, 2014 (link).