Hen Gymro ("Old Welshman") is landrace wheat of South West Wales that clung on in cultivation into the 1920’s – longer than any other British wheat landrace. Beardless (non awned), it is one of the few surviving forms with hairy or ‘hoary’ chaff. Striking red pigment in the upper portion of the peduncle as the plants reach maturity.
It was usually grown for home bread-making purposes. The conditions under which it was grown were usually unfavourable, but the old variety, season by season, was better able to produce millable grain than the modern varieties, particularly under adverse ripening conditions. The long, slender, and tough straw (canopy height 128 cm.) also made first-rate thatching material. These characteristics made it especially suitable for growing on small upland farms in West Wales.
Researchers from the Aberystwyth based Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) noticed the wheat growing on local farms and from 1919 started to collect the multifold lines within the landrace with the idea of "improving" it. Over 250 different types were identified by T. J. Jenkin who was then succeeded as head of breeding by Evans Thomas Jones. Pondering the various reasons why this landrace had clung on in this notoriously damp corner of the British Isles despite all the competition from seed companies’ cultivars they commented…
"… In S.W. Wales many farmers persisted in growing the old variety Hen Gymro (Old Welshman). It would be too much to assume that this preference was due entirely to either ignorance or prejudice, and the Station considered it necessary to carry out some investigational work, although serious wheat breeding was not contemplated.” The chief reason for its continued use seemed to be that season by season it was better able to produce millable grain than the modern varieties, particularly under adverse ripening conditions.
Over several years, and led by Head of Grass Breeding T.J. Jenkin, the WPBS developed five strains (or ‘pure lines’) of Hen Gymro and in 1928 made them available to farmers for large-scale trial. This was the first of the WPBS breeding programmes to go public. Estate records from Llanerchaeron mansion on the River Aeron (designed and built in 1795 by John Nash for Major William Lewis as a model, self-sufficient farm complex and now run by the National Trust) show Hen Gymro S70 being grown there regularly throughout the 1930s for ‘use in the kitchen’.
With the changes in agricultural practice, the advent of high yielding modern wheat varieties and the concentration of cereal growing in the flatter, drier areas of the UK, growing wheat for flour production had largely died out in West Wales.
Now, small mixed farms in the area are looking to increase biodiversity and practice regenerative agriculture whilst craft bakers are looking to create loaves full of flavour, with flour of known provenance. The qualities of Hen Gymro which made it valuable to farmers in wet West Wales 100 years ago make it valuable again today.
In 2020 Hen Gymro has returned to Llanerchaeron where a four acre field of the wheat is being grown again for the first time in many years.
Milled traditionally the grain produces lovely soft flour which bakes a dark, rich loaf.
Here’s what Carwyn Graves says about his first taste of Hen Gymro bread in his forthcoming book on Welsh Food…
“Lightly toasted, the crumb as I bite into it is immediately satisfying. I can tell it keeps its shape. It’s dark, chewy, malty; more like rye bread than any supermarket wheat loaf. It tantalises my tongue with a distinctive nutty moistness that I turn around in my mouth for days after I’ve left Felinganol mill.”