I moved to France at 18 years old and ended up working as a nanny for a wonderful family there. “Nanny” is a term I will use loosely since my charge was a girl only four years my junior. My role ended up being that of English teacher, ambassador, big sister, and family chef.
Cooking in a foreign country brings about new ingredients and new flavours. I ventured out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion (steak tartare anyone? Perhaps some blood sausage or skate wing?) but relished in the new dishes I hadn’t known existed. One of which was a grain we simply called “du blé” (wheat) or by the brand, “Pilpil”. I had never experienced wheat of the sort at home: these were instead whole kernels that when cooked yielded a slightly chewy and mildly nutty flavour. Any proper English translation eluded me so the tasty morsels remained a uniquely French-named treat to me. Pilpil was a favourite with my host family- it was served simply with fresh butter and herbs.
Flash forward several years and I find myself in one of my favourite Victoria shops: Seven Valley Fine Foods. The small Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food shop has provided me with ingredients and inspiration for a variety of dishes over the years. This visit was no exception. As I perused the aisles, lo and behold a little bag with some familiar contents: Pilpil! I admittedly had forgotten that the hearty dish even existed- it has been so long since I had some.
After a bit of investigating, I realized that the mystery grain of my young French adventures was the humble wheat berry. Mais oui! I hadn’t eaten wheat berries since I lived in France and have since cooked up a batch or two to relive some happy memories. The below version is creamy and savoury- perfect for a chilly day.
Wheat berries are a whole grain packed with fibre and low in fat and can be found in most health or Eastern food stores.
Winter Wheat Berries with Sage and Goats’ Cheese [serves 4-6 as a side dish]
2 cups wheat berries (ensure they are not par cooked; if so, follow package directions)
7 cups cold water
4 tbs salted butter
1 large whole leek, cleaned and chopped in 1 cm pieces
1 cup yam, diced
¼ cup cream
¼ cup unripened goats’ cheese, room temperature and coarsely crumbled
3 tbs finely chopped fresh sage
fresh ground pepper and sea salt to taste
1. Rinse and sort wheat berries discarding any unwelcome debris. Place in a large heavy saucepan and add water.
2. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir. Cover and reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Leave for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
3. With roughly 20 minutes left of cooking time for the wheat berries, take a large sauté pan and melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, add the diced yams. Keep the heat low enough to soften the leeks without them getting crisp.
4. With the leeks soft, their whites almost translucent and the yams tender, turn to the heat to medium-high; add cream and sage. Stir gently and frequently so that the cream remains below a boil. Allow the cream to thicken and reduce- about 8 minutes.
5. When the wheat is cooked to tender, drain all the water.
6. Add the goats’ cheese to the leek mixture and stir until incorporated. Add the well drained wheat and stir. Season to taste.