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Reviving An Heirloom Corn That Packs More Flavor And Nutrition

Posted: August 22, 2013

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Imagine corn on the cob that naturally tastes creamy and buttery — no added fat required. Native Americans bred such a variety, but its kernels were almost lost to history. Now one chef is bringing back the heirloom corn — and hoping it will serve as a lesson in what can happen when crops are bred to be flavorful and colorful, not just big.

The heirloom corn variety has only eight rows of kernels and hence, its name: New England Eight Row Flint.

The heirloom corn variety has only eight rows of kernels and hence, its name: New England Eight Row Flint.

Chef Dan Barber prepares polenta with an heirloom corn variety at the Blue Hill restaurant in the Hudson River Valley.

Chef Dan Barber prepares polenta with an heirloom corn variety at the Blue Hill restaurant in the Hudson River Valley.

One day about eight years ago, chef Dan Barber of the famed Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns in the Hudson River Valley got a FedEx package from someone he didn't know.

Inside were two ears of corn. And a letter.

The handwritten note explained that the corn was an heirloom variety called New England Eight Row Flint (or Otto File, by its Italian name), and that it was a taste that was nearly lost to history.

Native Americans cultivated this variety hundreds of years ago. The corn caught on with settlers in New England because it was hearty and nutritious.

Then, in the 19th century, the grain was exported to Italy, where it was prized as a stunningly flavorful polenta corn.

Barber was curious. So he got in touch with the man who had sent the FedEx package, a grain enthusiast named Glenn Roberts. He had tracked down Eight Row Flint corn seed from a maize seed collection and grown some.

"It was phenomenally flavored," Roberts told me. "The flavors were bounding out of the polenta." He was eager to revive the corn here in the U.S.

If you listen to my story, you'll hear how chef Barber made an arrangement to start growing the New England heirloom corn at the farm next to his restaurant. And for the past eight years, farmer Jack Algiere has overseen its cultivation.

During my visit, Algiere showed me one of the golden-hued cobs still growing on the stalk. "It will turn a golden orange when it's dry," Algiere said.

The vibrancy of this yellowish-orange pigment is indicative of high concentrations of beneficial phytonutrients called carotenoids, which make this corn appealing for its nutritional value. And it's also fairly high in protein.

So why did farmers stop growing this corn? For everything that New England Eight Row Flint corn has going for it in terms of flavor, its big downside is that it doesn't produce many cobs. It's a low-yield corn.

"That's why farmers moved to higher-yield [varieties]," explains Algiere. "They can get more corn per acre at lower quality." Farmers produce for bulk because they're paid by the bushel, not by the color or the flavor.

So varieties such as New England Eight Row Flint corn may produce great taste, but they're not really commercially viable unless you convince more people to pay for taste over volume.

That's what chef Barber is doing at Blue Hill. He serves a polenta made from the Eight Row Flint corn grown at Stone Barns.

And when I tasted it, I was surprised. The polenta tasted as if he had added butter. It was creamy and flavorful. Diners who have been turned onto it say the flavor is stunningly complex. "It's kinda crazy," he says.

The taste is coming directly from the corn.

Barber says this corn is just one example of what can happen when crops are bred to be flavorful and colorful, not just big.

The chef says he hopes this story becomes more than just a foodie fascination with heirlooms because he thinks there's more at stake here about the way our food is grown.

"What I've come to learn from this experience is that if you are pursuing great flavor," he says, "you are pursuing great nutrition. It's one and the same."

And what he'd like to see is for farmers and plant breeders to work together to combine the best of the old with modern breeding techniques that may help pack more nutrition into the foods we all eat.

So where can you get your hands on some of these heirloom varieties of dried corn? Well, in Italy a few boutique millers grind Otto File corn.

And there's a smattering of farms and seed suppliers in the U.S. selling other varieties of Flint corn, such as Seed Savers Exchange and High Mowing Seeds. Harry Here Farm in Exeter, R.I., grows a variety called Longfellow.

One high-protein variety, according to Slow Food USA, is called Roy's Calais flint. And there's also enthusiasm for a very colorful variety known as Floriani Red.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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