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S T A R T E R S

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p e l t It’s just a version of wheat, this stuff, and one with a series of not-particularly-appetising names. It’s called dinkel wheat, hulled wheat, farro or spelt – but however you say it, it’s sort of special. And way more appetising than it sounds… SPELT FANS – AND yes, there are quite a few of them – push the environmental benefits of this crop, and it turns out there are quite few of them, too. It’s low-yielding, so takes less from the soil than most grains; it’s weather and disease resistant, so thrives without the need for pesticides or fertilisers; and the food we make from it stores very well – especially the pasta, which lasts, basically, forever. Indeed, so hardy is this stuff that some fans claim that spelt’s thick, protective hull is so sturdy it would even keep the grain within safe from nuclear fallout – though we’re not sure how many people have ever put this theory to the test... Oh, and did we mention that it’s good for you too? Well, it’s true. And it’s delicious. Time, clearly, we gave spelt another look. Spelt’s a hybrid, but a naturally occurring one (it was probably originally a cross between some form of regular wheat and wild goat grass) that first cropped up in the Near East more than 8,000 years ago, and in Europe rather more recently. People have certainly been cultivating the stuff since 5000BC or so, and it was a big noise in the European Bronze Age, in Medieval times, and, increasingly, now, as farms in central Europe, northern Spain and, yes, the West Country have started exploiting the new-found interest in it as a health food. In ancient mythology, spelt was a gift to the Greeks from the goddess Demeter – she’s the lass responsible for the harvests, and, more broadly, the general cycle of life and death – and the Greek Empire spread it across the Med. Certainly, by

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around 500BC it was big in southern England, but went on to be totally usurped by regular bread wheat – which is faster and cheaper to grow – only to see an 11th-hour revival in recent years. Back in the day, spelt had a bad rep as poor man’s food – in Horace’s Satire (30BC), the Country Mouse eats spelt at dinner while serving his city guests posher grub, for instance – but no longer. These days the script has flipped, for spelt is most commonly enjoyed by the well-off and well-informed, who appreciate its flavour, its green credentials, its easy-todigest qualities, its versatility, and – of course – its taste. Indeed, though it contains gluten – and so is unsuitable for those who suffer from coeliac disease – spelt is pretty healthy stuff all round, heaving with dietary fibre and complex carbs, B vitamins, and minerals from phosphorus to manganese. Because it’s highly water-soluble – the molecular structure of the protein in spelt is more brittle, for one thing, than standard wheat’s – the good stuff is more easily absorbed by the body, and eating spelt as an alternative to regular wheat has been shown to help with a number of health issues, from allergies and diabetes to high cholesterol levels and autoimmune disorders. The mucopolysaccharides contained in spelt – a sort of carbohydrate with anti-inflammatory properties – digests especially slowly, meaning spelt delivers energy over the long haul in a way other grains don’t. Indeed, when the Roman Legions saw how much energy the speltgobbling Germanic tribes had in battle, they wasted no time in adding it to their

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own diets too, calling it ‘marching grain’. These days, you can find spelt flour and spelt goods, including a pale ryelike bread – usually sweet and nuttyflavoured, with a surprisingly soft and light texture – and biscuits, crackers et al, increasingly easily, especially in health food shops. You can use ‘spelt berries’ – the grain’s de-hulled, wholegrain form – as you would rice, so think risottos, soups and stews. And you can substitute spelt flour for regular wheat flour when making just about anything: breads, pasta (particularly good, as it retains a great al dente texture when cooked), cakes, muffins, breakfast cereals, pancakes, waffles and more. Spelt beer is possible, too, and spelt vodka – but the most celebrated alcohol-related use of spelt is in jenever, the juniper-flavoured Dutch liquor from which gin evolved. This all said, spelt doesn’t respond to cooking in quite the same way as regular wheat, so you’ll have to learn a few new tricks – like avoiding high temperatures, and getting the amount of water right. Why’s spelt more expensive than your regular wheat? Well, it’s rarer, less is grown, and – unlike modern wheat – it hasn’t been bred to lose its husk during harvesting, making the removal of the kernel from its protective outer hull an additional task for the spelt farmer. (It’s the toughness of this husk that means we need fewer pesticides, however. Remember that nuclear fallout claim? Well, if it can cope with that, it can certainly keep out a few insects.) Well worth investigating, then, we we reckon – yes, even if it does cost a little bit more…

Crumbs Bath and Bristol - issue 54  
Crumbs Bath and Bristol - issue 54  
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