In 1482, in the month of December, King Louis XI was taken ill at Tours, and had Touzelle [wheat] brought from the diocese of Nismes, so that bread could be made for him. The prince, extremely weak in mind and body, and struck with the fear of death beyond all expression, believed that of all the corners of his kingdom, the diocese of Nismes produced the wheat most likely to bring him to health.
That’s Léon Ménard in his Histoire de Nîmes of 1755. The passage is quoted in a short post in what alas seems now to be a dormant blog about artisanal breadmaking. I got there because I was intrigued by this statement in a box in a GRAIN article by Hélène Zaharia (of Réseau Semences Paysannes) called Bread of life.1
Henri is an organic farmer in the south of France. In 1997 he was carrying out research into farming practice in the Gare2 region when he discovered Touselle wheat. It is an early wheat, without whiskers, with a soft grain, very suitable for bread-making. It was once cultivated quite widely in Languedoc and Provence and was appreciated for its good yields, even when it was grown on poor soil in a difficult, dry environment. But by the time Henri became interested in it, it had been widely abandoned in favour of modern varieties.
Henri decided to try it out for himself and obtained a few seeds of four of the 13 varieties of Touselle held in the Department of Genetic Resources at INRA in Clermont-Ferrand.
It turns out that “Henri” (for some reason, no surname is provided in the GRAIN article) is Henri Ferté, and what intrigued me particularly about this passage is that he is a farmer who obtained germplasm directly from a genebank, in this case the Conservatoire de Ressources Génétiques, INRA Clermont-Ferrand.3 This doesn’t happen as much as it could, or should. Or at least I don’t know of that many examples. Henri knew about the genebank because he has “un diplôme d’agro en poche,” as Zaharia says in another, more recent, article (which I cannot find online, but is entitled “Gard: La relance des blés méditerranéens.”). How do less academically qualified farmers find out about what’s in genebanks? It would be great to do a review of such direct use of national genebanks, and why there isn’t more of it. Maybe there is one out there already? Not all users are breeders — we sometimes forget that.
Anyway, Henri seems to have been fairly successful in bringing back touselle, King Louis XI’s miraculous wheat. This was apparently still around — in a number of distinct forms — at the end of the 19th century, but later largely disappeared: “…by 2004 Touselle was being grown experimentally on a fairly large number of peasant farms in the south of France.” A Union for the Promotion of Touselle was established in 2005. It doesn’t look to me like their website has been very active in the intervening years, but that’s no doubt because niche wheat farmers in the south of France have better things to do than mess around on the internet.