Stand on the little bridge over the Methow River in Winthrop, Washington, on a quiet spring day and you’ll hear the wind whisper through the wheat fields that line the town’s main roads. In May the wheat looks an awful lot like grass, but by August each stalk sprouts little buds. Just before September, the stalks fade to gold and then the reddish-brown buds dry out, harden, and ripen for picking. The smallest ones are ground into flour or cracked for animal feed; the biggest, heaviest berries are harvested for cooking.
These plump berries, actually seeds that grow in papery capsules at the top of each wheat stalk, look like oval-shaped, slightly squished popcorn kernels. Each stalk holds about 24 seeds, which stay ripe all winter. Too small to pick by hand, the berries are harvested with a combine, which cuts the stalks away from the ground and threshes the wheat, separating the grain from the inedible chaff.
In Winthrop, a blink of a town nestled against the eastern slope of the Cascades in the upper Methow Valley, much of the wheat belongs to Bluebird Grain Farms. Owners Brooke and Sam Lucy lease the land from homeowners at low rates, and in exchange, follow organic stewardship practices that nourish the soil and allow the landowners to keep their water rights. After harvest, Bluebird stores its organic, hard, red wheat berries in wooden silos, which allow the grain to breathe and avoid the mold that can grow in conventional metal grain silos. Up to about a year later, when the berries are still at their best, they package them for sale. Brooke Lucy says wheat berries stored in a cool, dry place can last for generations.
Fatter and chewier than rice, these winter berries add an earthy note to pilafs, salads, stuffing, stews, soups, and oatmeal. Simmer one part wheat berries with three parts water for about an hour, or until the plump grains soften. Cooked, cooled wheat berries freeze nicely in plastic zip-top bags; freshly prepared or defrosted, the berries have a deep, pungent, almost nutty flavor.