Back to the future for Grain?

Around 4000 BC Continental Neolithic farmers started to arrive in Britain and began the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settled farmers.  They domesticated animals and cultivated patchworks of land using primitive ox-drawn ploughs.  The earliest cultivated wheat varieties were Emmer and Einkorn.  Barley was also sown, though rye and oats appeared only as weeds among the crops.  By the Iron Age Triticum spelta (Spelt) had been discovered, thought to be the result of cross pollination between Emmer and Goat Grass.  This hardy relative of wheat was able to survive winter sowing so that grain could be available for the greater part of the year. 

In about 400 BC the rotary quern was invented, removing much of the drudgery of grinding, and grain was being stored either in granaries or sealed pits.  So successful were these early farmers that they even had some grain to export.

When the Romans conquered Britain in AD 43 they continued our farming development.  They cultivated rye and oats alongside the wheat (spelt) and barley that was already being grown.  They introduced water mills and drying furnaces that were so efficient that Britain became the granary of the Roman Empire.  Sadly no remains or record of Romano-British bread has ever been found and the only clues are from the restaurant that was preserved at Pompeii.  This listed 14 different types and showed that the richer you were the whiter your bread and the more likely it was to be flavoured with poppy, celery, anise or caraway seed.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire wheat production fell under the Saxon invaders, who preferred their native Rye.  It was not until the Middle Ages that wheat was once again highly prized for the whiteness of the flour, although it was available only to the rich. Coarse bread for trenchers was made from Barley or Rye, and the bread of the common people was Maslin – a mix of wheat and rye.

The wheat grown at this time was mainly Triticum turgidum, a soft wheat that has since been replaced by Triticum aestivum.  In the second half of the 20th century dwarf cultivars of Triticum aestivum were developed, and many would say this heralded the growing incidence of people developing an intolerance to wheat.  Research is now being undertaken into the potential value of older strains, both for the benefit of our health and also their hardiness, which may be better able to cope with the changes in climate we anticipate.

If we ate less meat we could use the land currently producing animal feed to feed ourselves, or so it has been argued.  Yet around half of all the barley we grow does not make the premium malting grade and 40% of wheat is fed to animals.  The worldwide demand for wheat is growing and if we are to be more self-reliant it appears we will need not only to identify strains that will grow well here but also get reacquainted with the bakery that suits our grains.  For the rest of this article I shall be looking at the potential of Spelt to fulfil our culinary needs, with oats and barley to be considered at a later date.

Spelt may sound a strange choice to start with as it hasn’t been grown in any quantity in this country since Roman times.  However it is now being grown with considerable success in my home county of Somerset and demand is certainly on the up, with several food writers proclaiming it the new “hot thing”.  The reason for this rise in popularity is mainly to do with the growing number of people who have problems eating modern wheat, and Spelt seems to be a more acceptable alternative.  As previously mentioned, spelt is thought to be the result of cross-pollination between the ancient wheat variety Emmer and Goat Grass.  Its protein content is typically 25% higher than the modern wheat grown in this country but, critically, is of a different molecular structure, being more brittle and therefore more easily broken down and digested.

The downsides come with yield and difficulty in grinding Spelt.  It is what is known as a “covered wheat” because of the incredibly hard husk that surrounds it.  This accounts for around 40% of its weight, and so far this has little value, although the possibilities of using it as a bio-fuel are being investigated.  This 40% loss is from a yield that is already about half that of conventional wheat.  What is being grown here in Somerset is being grown organically, as part of a four-year cycle, within a mixed farm.  Sharpham Park is the UK’s main producer, although small amounts of spelt are also grown, and milled into wholegrain flour, by Gilchesters in the North East.  As demand has shot up in recent years the gap has been filled mainly by importing from Europe.  As with conventional wheat there are many strains of Spelt, some of which may be as a result of crosses with modern wheat that could adversely affect the structure of the protein.  Sharpham Park has been careful to grow only from their own seed to ensure the continued purity of the strain.  Growing for seed accounts for the majority of the Spelt grown on the Sharpham Park estate itself, but by guaranteeing other organic farmers a set price, it is spreading throughout Somerset.  Regarding its hardiness, owner Roger Saul, confirmed that his spelt has produced high quality bread flour in two out of the last three notoriously difficult harvests, although interestingly some forays into growing it across the border in Dorset have not produced the same quality. It works for him, he said, but he wouldn’t want to make claims on behalf of others whilst being more than willing to share the benefit of his experiences with anyone interested in starting to grow spelt.

Clearly home-grown Spelt is considerably more expensive than wheat, but I can imagine that if you are not able to eat wheat you would happily pay the price.  What of those who don’t have such health concerns?  I was initially motivated to try Sharpham Park’s spelt products purely by my desire to support local farming but several products in their extensive range have become permanent fixtures in my larder.  My day starts with my own granola blend which includes Sharpham Park’s toasted spelt flakes and puffed spelt (without a honey coating, but you may prefer it with).  Sharpham Park of course blend their own mixes of muesli and granola, but my favourite product in their whole range is the pearled spelt.  Before this became available here I used to import Farro (a Spelt cultivar) from Italy.  It is particularly invaluable at this “in-between potatoes” time of year, but I consider it an essential store cupboard staple all year round.  I use it instead of rice to make a type of “risotto” – perfect for making leftover roast meat go further or as a hearty vegetarian dish in its own right.  I hesitate slightly to describe the dish as risotto or even Speltotto as it is sometimes called, as risotto is a very fine dish in its own right and too much comparison is not always helpful.  But just as there are different types of risotto rice, each with their own characteristics, pearled spelt can be considered an extension of this range.  It is easier to cook than a risotto – more forgiving over timing and does not need such constant stirring.  The end result is more rustic and hearty, but none the less delicious for that.  A more British name for the dish would be Frumenty.  This is one of the oldest ways of cooking wheat in which the natural sweetness of the wheat grain is released by long slow cooking.   It dates back at least to the Roman occupation and something similar can be found wherever the Romans went.  By the Middle Ages it had become a feast day accompaniment for venison, cooked with milk, enriched with eggs, and coloured with saffron, which might sound strange to modern tastes, but its origins are still evident in our use of bread sauce with game today.  It was some time before Frumenty became available to the common people but around the 17th century farmers wives began selling the partially cooked wheat at market so that people could finish the cooking at home, enriched with whatever they could afford.  It was still a dish for special occasions though, being associated with Christmas and Easter in particular.  The origins of Frumenty predate enclosed ovens, but the similarities with rice pudding occurred to me and when making Frumenty with milk as a sweet dish this is the method I prefer.  However, savoury Frumenty, cooked with meat stock, I prepare in a similar way to Risotto.

Continuing the analogies with rice, I should mention that the whole spelt grain is also available, which is firmer in texture and nuttier in flavour than the pearled.  It would make a good substitute for wild rice and is at its best served cold.

A recent discovery is that the refined flour makes good pasta.  Yes- honestly, I was sceptical myself when it was first suggested to me, remembering the days before Italian “00” flour was available here and I tried the suggested alternative of bread flour, which was hopeless.  I was also concerned that the nutty flavour would be too dominate, but so far it has worked in all the combinations I have tried.  My recipe for Nettle Ravioli is below.

As far as bread is concerned, a 3-minute loaf has been much promoted for Spelt.  My whole instinct, admittedly based on baking bread with modern wheat, is that however brittle the gluten in Spelt, it would surely still benefit from a period of fermentation.  Not being gluten intolerant I can’t put the health angle to the test, but what I do know is that the flavour and digestive benefits that come from allowing lactic acids to build up will not start to occur until at least 6 hours into fermentation.  So I tend to agree with Shipton Mill’s baker, Clive Mellum, when he says that long fermentation, using small amounts of yeast, is his preferred method when baking with Spelt.  You can see his white spelt recipe here: 

I find a 100% whole meal spelt loaf rather too heavy for my liking so cheat a little by using half white and half wholemeal flour, which you could make using Clive Mellum’s white spelt method.  You will find my own recipe below, in which I have added Rosemary and raisins to emphasise the sweet, nutty flavour of spelt, which I think makes a perfect accompaniment for cheese.  Otherwise you can use spelt as a substitute in pretty much any wheat bread recipe.  The fermentation time will be a little faster, and as with any change in flour, water absorption rates vary, but it handles essentially in the same way as wheat.  I’m afraid I haven’t yet tasted a spelt pastry, cake or biscuit that I have enjoyed – and that surely is their purpose, but I guess that were I unable to eat a wheat alternative they might become more attractive although my thoughts turn first to oats for wheat-free sweet treats.

So could Spelt provide a solution to our future grain production?

 Sharpham Park began growing it when Roger Saul’s sister was ill with cancer and as far as I can read the situation they are still primarily selling it on its health benefits.  From a culinary standpoint what makes it a real winner for me is their wide range of preparations which thankfully mean I need look no further than my home county for my staple grain.


Frumenty with Leeks and Wild Garlic

Frumenty Baked in the Oven

Nettle Ravioli

Spelt, Rosemary and Raisin Bread

Buying British Spelt:

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