Coltivare, Houston’s beloved neighborhood Italian restaurant from Agricole Hospitality, is known for its year-round backyard garden whose bounty informs the menu. This summer, executive chef/partner Ryan Pera grew Eight Row Flint Corn, a sweet, tender variety of heirloom corn with indigenous roots which will be ready to harvest in October, and will feature in a special dish throughout the fall.
This corn was introduced to colonizers by Native Americans in New England and is believed to be the first variety of corn that was ground into meal, mashed, fermented, and distilled into American whiskey. In the late 1800s, this variety of corn was taken overseas to Italy, where it became known as Otto File— more commonly known today as polenta.
After going extinct due to low yields, this delicious variety was reintroduced to the American market by Anson Mills in the late 1990s. Today, Eight Row Flint corn is widely grown in Italy, although it remains a rare heirloom variety here in the States. The Coltivare team proudly grows it in their on-site garden today.
“We first came across Eight Row Flint corn through Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills,” says Pera. “Morgan [Weber, his Agricole Hospitality partner] and I were intrigued by the fact that this was most likely the corn present when European settlers arrived in North America. For food enthusiasts like us, we found the seed and its history fascinating.”
“Getting into the story of it, we loved the fact that this was most likely the same corn variety on ships going to Europe, the same variety that early Americans were making whiskeys and grain alcohols with, as well as the variety with which the first tortillas were made. Finding this corn and knowing its history tied into our business model so well, and was an inspiration for us as chefs and proprietors.”
A cozy restaurant inspired by Pera’s Italian heritage and featuring an ever-changing menu of sustainably sourced dishes, Coltivare opened in Houston’s Heights in 2014. Pera was named Food & Wine magazine’s People’s Best New Chef for the Southwest region in 2015, as well as Chef of the Year at the Houston Culinary Awards that same year, and a James Beard semifinalist in 2018. The garden is at the very heart of the restaurant’s concept.
“As a chef and business owner with a garden in the back of the restaurant, I love to find heirloom seeds, especially for those items that just can’t be purchased,” says the chef. “Eight Row Flint corn falls into that category. We acquired those seeds from Anson Mills, and this is now our third time planting them. Also, with a bar named Eight Row Flint in the company, we knew we had to try to grow it.”
Pera describes Eight Row’s flavor as unique, heavily corn driven, with a pronounced mineral drive. Its texture is very true to a flint corn, hard and dense.
“As a chef, and with a product that I had never worked with until we grew it at Coltivare, I wanted to try every method of cooking it that I could. We’re going to let the corn dry, then mill it in-house the old-fashioned way with a hand-cranked mill,” he says. “It will be served as a polenta, topped with local honey nut squash and a honey agrodolce. We also found that we can pop it!”
However, Eight Row Flint corn is not easy to grow, “as we have found with most heirloom seeds, especially in Houston’s growing climate,” says Pera. “Also, as with most heirlooms, crop yields are low, and this corn is especially prone to huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on the fresh ears of corn, highly prized in Mexican cuisine) which can be great, just not exactly what we want here.”
Despite his love for unique heirloom vegetable varieties, Pera acknowledges the reality that growing them is hard. “While growing this corn gives us an exclusive opportunity to put a dish on the menu with it, it also helps us realize why farmers use hybrid seeds these days.”
This formidable dish is available now, for a limited time, while the small corn harvest lasts.