The Swabians know it as Schwabenkorn, the Swiss as Dinkel, the French as Épeautre, the Polish as Orkisz, the Russians as Polby. The ancient Greeks knew it as Olyra and as Zeia, the ancient Romans as Far and as Adorium and it is from the Saxons who knew it as Spelta that we have its English name — Spelt!
Names are a clue to origins. If the object of your desire has no name in your language it has no origin in your land. Spelt is known to the Germans and the Swiss because it is rooted in their culinary culture and has been for a very long time. Spelt does not appear on the ancient monuments and tablets of the Anatolians and Turks, nor the Egyptians or Persians or Sumerians, yet it was found growing wild in the Balkans 4,000 years ago and in ancient Mesopotamia 8,000 years ago.
The oldest known spelt deposits in Europe have been dated to the late Stone Age, 4,500 years ago. Spelt grains were found at Cortaillotd where four neolithic villages existed close to the shore of Lake Neuchâtel, south of the modern city of Neuchâtel on the north side of the expansive lake. As the climate changed 3,500 years ago to become cooler and wetter the grain that was a natural cross between emmer wheat and dwarf wheat became resistant to that change, and thrived.
Alphonse De Candolle addressed the origin issue in his book Origin of Cultivated Plants. ‘There is much uncertainty as to the origin of the species as a wild plant. This leads me to attribute more importance to the hypothesis that spelt is derived by cultivation from the common wheat, or from an intermediate form at some not very early prehistoric time. The experiments of Vilmorin support this theory, for cross fertilizations of the spelt by the downy white wheat, and vice versâ, yield “hybrids whose fertility is complete, with a mixture of the characters of both parents, those of the spelt preponderating”.’
Three thousand years ago river valley communities in the south of Ireland were cooking with spelt berries. It is not difficult to imagine spelt being grown in Ireland. There was a constant flow of tribes from the high mountains of the Caucasus to the low mountains of Cork and Tipperary.
As the soil eroded and irrigation systems failed, farmers were forced to rely on spelt and for more than a thousand years, in the eroding soil and on the peripheries where the soil was poor, spelt fields provided a salvation, to the extent that some villagers could not wait to harvest the ripe grains, they cooked and ate the unripe berries.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the most distinguished of the Spanish writers of the Roman imperial age. Born in Corduba in Andalucia to a Roman equestrian family, Seneca was brought to Rome as a child and seemed destined for a political career. Instead, he became a stoic philosopher, producing wise words that carry moral echoes down the ages to us. He grew up in a Rome that distributed welfare in the form of free grain, an expedient consequence of food riots 2,080 years ago. Rome, he realised, could not feed its people. Its legionaries lived mainly on barley, durum wheat and spelt that was ground and made into unleavened breads known as buccellatum, which now survive as the puccia breads of Puglia.
During the centuries when the Roman Empire began to fall into decline, the soils of its conquered terrorities became deserts, marshlands and wastelands, from north Africa to the Levant and Persia to the Balkans and northern and western Europe as well as southern Italy and Sicily. Spelt, grown on fields in south-east England and on the slowly eroding land around Carthage, was the saviour.
It is not known where that spelt originated, whether it came from the Balkans or the Persian lands, from Ireland or England or Scandinavia or Tunisia. It is nonexistent today. Instead the modern grain we know as spelt has Swabian and Swiss origins.
We are in Kupprichhausen in northern Baden-Württenberg at the Grünkernfest sampling green spelt salad with berries that have been cooked in vegetable stock. We have been reminded of the words, nearly one thousand years ago, by Abbess Hildegard von Bingen of Rupertsberg. Spelt, she wrote in her diary, ‘makes people cheerful with a friendly disposition. Those who eat it have healthy flesh and good blood.’
Tim Schneider, a food scientist and bread baker in Stuttgart in the heart of the province, is also an advocate of the benefits of spelt and the reason why green grain exists. ‘Farro (grünkern) is a common food in Swabia. These are the unripe spelt berries. They were eaten because people starved and couldn’t wait for the harvest of the spelt.’
‘Spelt and rye must have been to medieval Germans what rice is today for many South Asian countries. The South Asian cultures and Middle Eastern countries flourished far before Europe became advanced and powerful in any way and I think that is partly also due to the fact that they had wheat and rice available as energy and nutrient sources.’
‘In Swabia it was grown because it requires less warmth from the sun and does not need good soil. Spelt is much easier to grow than wheat. I remember reading once that spelt traveled back to the Middle East from Swabia. But it was rejected there because their bread wheat had the better dough properties and is easier to process, no hull. In Swabia, they wished to grow bread wheat over spelt too and today we are at this point except that spelt is still valued here because it has a good flavour and nutritional value, especially the ancient variety.’
‘Spelt always played a key role in Swabian food. Many Swabian potato dishes like the schupfnudeln (gnocci) were made with 100% spelt flour in good times. The potato then allowed a switch to a potato dough with only a little spelt added to ensure a steady food supply when flour was scarce.’
‘It’s maybe a lucky coincidence that spelt was invented by mother nature two times.’
Spelt has never been more popular, and not just in southern Germany and in northern Switzerland, where those older varieties are being cultivated. Known as urdinkel (old spelt), the range of flours milled from spelt are going into every type of bread and pastry, replacing hard and soft wheat in many recipes.
It is also becoming increasingly popular in Ireland, where Andrew and Leonie Workman grow, mill and package spelt berries and flour from their farm in Dunany, on the coast below the ancient land of Oriel above the Boyne Valley in county Louth.
Spelt, with barley, einkorn wheat and emmer wheat, remained a staple in Europe until the 20th century, when it fell out of favour for numerous reasons, not least the problems associated with harvesting, separating and milling into flour.
The Workmans have got round these problems with modern machinery. Now spelt is one of their biggest sellers and they have high hopes for the berries, which can be used in salads and stews, to make risotto and soaked whole to be baked in bread.
Dominick Gryson, a Louth man who has experimented with ancient grains to find strong shafts for thatching, believes the Workmans have found a great artisan product. ‘Spelt does not give the same yield as modern wheats, which do not grow well here in our climate. Spelt, on the other hand, is suited to the soil and the climate and can be sold as a high-value organic product.’
Spelt contains beneficial minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins (B and E), and has six of the eight essential amino acids that stimulate the production of happiness hormones, just as the abbess said. But it is the low GI (glycaemic index of carbohydrates) that makes spelt a primary health product. With 35 compared to 40 for wheat and 70 for rice, spelt releases glucose more slowly into the bloodstream, balancing out blood sugar levels.
Spelt is described as a covered wheat, with two kernels that cannot be threshed free from the hull. That was its disadvantage at the end of the 19th century. Despite the success of modern wheat, with its higher hectare yields, modern spelt has survived into the 21st century because of its nature, and because farmers and millers realised they had to accept smaller yields, albeit of grains with a niche value.
In Baden-Württemberg the good people of Neckar-Odenwald want to share their unique cuisine using the unripe grains of Bauländer Spelz, which are sold as Fränkischer Grünkern.
They have produced a book – Hauptsache Grünkern (Mainly Greencorn) – with 150 grünkern-themed recipes. Recently awarded geographical indicator status by the European Union, grünkern is amazingly popular in southern Germany, where the green spelt festival has been held every year in Kupprichhausen since 1978. Grünkern can be bought from Zimmermann Mill.
Spelt saved the early Roman Empire but it also sustained the tribes of barbarians who brought about the fall of Rome and allowed their descendants to supplant Roman power throughout Europe. Something that powerful is worth promoting, especially now that modern wheat has lost its allure and the wisdom of the ancients, Seneca and von Bingen among them, is finally being heard.
… continued in part 9.