The Rise of White Sonora Wheat

In addition to its rich history, its disease resistance, and its drought tolerance, this heritage grain has belatedly been recognized for its superior culinary qualities.

| Fall 2012

As I look out each morning to the fields below my straw-bale home on a ridge overlooking the Native Seeds/SEARCH farm in Patagonia, Arizona, I scan the fields to see if the White Sonora wheat there is ready for harvest. It is comfort to know that this summer — three centuries after this heirloom bread wheat was introduced to Arizona and California — White Sonora’s whole-grained flour and wheat berries will be commercially available again to bakers and brewers in my home state.

And just as it “takes a village” to raise a child, it has taken a generous collaboration of people from many cultures and walks of life to bring the West’s oldest bread wheat back to the marketplace and table. Heritage grains have been among the slowest of the heirloom seeds to return to the local-food movement, but recently, from Low Country in the Carolinas to the Desert Borderlands of the Southwest, that has all begun to change.

Culinary Uses

White Sonora is an heirloom bread wheat that was introduced into North America by Spanish and Italian missionaries under the broad category of “candeal cereals” suited for making communion bread. By 1640, it was being successfully sown in America’s most arid farmscapes alongside another, more consistently barbed wheat which the same Jesuit padres called “espinguin”.

The soft bread wheat that was later given the name White Sonora had round-seeded grains that are nearly opaque, pale-colored with a blush of pink. Their papery “glumes” or chaff that surround this cereal grain are reddish-brown, velvety, and either barbless or weakly barbed. This grain grows on long cylindrical heads which are formed by slightly-squarish rows of spikelets. Although their plants are rather short and thin-stemmed, White Sonora has broad green leaves that are just as resistant to rust as its grain is to the fungus called Fusarium. For these reasons, White Sonora has survived where other historic wheat varieties quickly succumbed to disease.

In addition to its rich history, its disease resistance and drought tolerance, this heritage grain has belatedly been recognized for its superior culinary qualities. It has become highly-prized by bakers for both the sweet, earthy flavor and nutty texture of its flour, and by brewers for its fermentable and maltable wheat berries.

When first exposed to its flour a decade ago, Sausalito baker Eduardo Morrell found that White Sonora’s low-gluten dough made a very dense, moist, chewy bread rather than a high, lofty loaf. Then he tasted his results:

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