Heritage wheat comes to Menno’s home

Dutch bread connects continents, centuries

Dec 16, 2019 by , and

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WITMARSUM, Netherlands — Every time Mennonites of European ancestry moved, they looked for new land to sustain life, usually by growing grain. The journey of grain is thus a symbol of Mennonite treks.

A Mennonite gardener once said he believed people treated their seeds with such care because they represent life itself. Indeed, Mennonites literally had no life without their seeds.

Menno de Vries, left, grew Turkey Red wheat that was milled traditionally using wind power and then baked by Jippe Braaksma, right, and Christa Bruggenkamp at the 1850 De Onderneming (The Enterprise) windmill and the Mevrouw de Molenaar (Mrs. Miller) bakery in Witmarsum, Netherlands. — Susanne Irmer

Menno de Vries, left, grew Turkey Red wheat that was milled traditionally using wind power and then baked by Jippe Braaksma, right, and Christa Bruggenkamp at the 1850 De Onderneming (The Enterprise) windmill and the Mevrouw de Molenaar (Mrs. Miller) bakery in Witmarsum, Netherlands. — Susanne Irmer

In 1812, Dale Friesen’s ancestors moved from the Vistula River near Danzig to Ukraine’s Crimean region. When their religious freedom was threatened there too, they emigrated in 1875 to Nebraska — and took their precious Turkey Red wheat seed with them.

This winter wheat variety grows considerably slower than many others and has a later harvest date and more nutrients. It can withstand wind, rain and snow. If it is flattened by the weather, it can rise again.

The ability to re-emerge after setbacks symbolizes Mennonites who moved to new places to build a new life.

For last year’s “Menno Simons Groen” exhibition in Witmarsum, exhibit creator and Mennonite farmer Menno de Vries was looking for Turkey Red wheat.

An internet search led him to a supermarket in Ohio, through which he came in contact with Edward Hill and Dale Friesen. The supermarket had sought a grain for baking bread that could be grown locally. But everyone said the Ohio winters wouldn’t allow that kind of grain to grow.

Hill, who grew up in a farming community and is a connoisseur of old grains, remembered from his youth there was grain that could handle the winter. He found a booklet about Mennonites from Russia and Ukraine and their Turkey Red wheat.

That’s how Hill came in contact with Friesen, whose ancestors originally came from the northern Netherlands, as his name suggests.

Friesen remembered sorting grain as a child with his family to have new seeds again. And yes, he still had some of that grain, which dated from before Turkey Red wheat began getting hybridized for yield in the 1940s.

At Hill’s request, Friesen went to work. He grew some grain for his own use in his garden. When that worked, he sowed a few acres in 2016, and then so much that the supermarket could bake loaves of it. Today, he grows the same Turkey Red wheat his great-grandmother Maria Frie­sen brought from Ukraine.

New start

For Friesen, growing the “ancient” grain again was more than an experiment. The grain’s story represented his family history and the history of all Mennonites who traveled from Friesland to Gdansk to Ukraine to the Great Plains of North America. He experienced the planting of the grain as a new beginning.

After Friesen shared the story of his ancestors’ treks with de Vries by phone, he sent bags of seeds to Witmarsum near his ancestral “home.”

De Vries sowed a few acres of land with the grain on Oct. 22, 2018, in Witmarsum, to discover how the grain grows on the land of Menno Simons.

The local miller ground it into flour this year, and bread was baked. After many centuries, residents of Witmarsum tasted how bread baked from ancient grain tastes.

First Menno bread

Algemene Doopsgezind Societeit (Dutch Mennonite Church) general secretary Henk Stenvers sliced the first loaf of Menno bread on Nov. 16 at the 1850 De Onder­nem­ing (The Enterprise) windmill in Witmarsum. Bales of straw from the harvest were available to attendees.

Henk Stenvers, general ­secretary of the Alge­mene Doopsgezind Societeit (Dutch Mennonite Church), slices a loaf of “Menno bread” on Nov. 16 in Witmarsum, Neth­erlands. — Truida Sluiman

Henk Stenvers, general ­secretary of the Alge­mene Doopsgezind Societeit (Dutch Mennonite Church), slices a loaf of “Menno bread” on Nov. 16 in Witmarsum, Neth­erlands. — Truida Sluiman

De Vries shared about cultivating the grain and its resilience. A storm’s torrential rains had flattened the crop but, true to its nature, it rose again.

Miller and baker Christa Bruggen-kamp of the Mev­rouw de Molenaar (Mrs. Miller) bakery explained the challenges of working with the grain. It started with the grinding, because the grains are very small.

When grain is harvested, it is tested. The Turkey Red’s starch content was low and the protein content high, which made baking a challenge. The best mixture for the dough had to be found. After that, practice showed proofing and baking had to be a continuous process.

Ultimately, trial and error resulted in a bread with a unique taste and nutritional value — a Mennonite bread of life in the home of Menno Simons.


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