Spelt – an ancient grain for modern tastes
Not long ago, spelt was an almost forgotten grain. Lower yielding and needing more post-harvest processing than conventional wheat, it had been left behind in the race to modernise. Over the past decade it has been ‘rediscovered’ as a nutritious alternative to wheat flour and spelt is now being embraced as a key ingredient for baking delicious bread.
Spelt is a grain with a long history of cultivation. There’s archaeological evidence of it being grown by ancient societies in both the Middle East and Europe. Further evidence of the historical importance of spelt comes from ancient Greek and Roman texts, and it gets a mention in the Old Testament too. Spelt is thought to have arisen from a natural cross between emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and wild goat grass (Aegilops tauschii.) There are actually two spelt lineages, an Asian spelt (which follows the classic story of wild emmer being pollinated by wild goat grass, and from which modern bread wheat was possibly domesticated) and a European spelt (which seems to involve crosses between the hexaploid Triticum compactum, which probably mutated out of bread wheat, and the tetraploid cultivated emmer, Triticum dicoccum). Archaeologists date European spelt to around 4000 years ago, first found around the Swiss lakes, whereas Asian spelt is much older with samples found in the Levant around...yes, 9000 years ago. Some say that spelt isn’t the true ancestor of bread wheat, there was another short-lived long extinct hexaploid with a similar genetic architecture. However the timeline/origins part is all very contentious and prone to (mis)interpretation...as you say, more waffle than a Belgian breakfast. The emmer was a common crop at the time, while the goat grass would have been growing nearby. Once established, though this new plant was added to the list of cultivated crops and became widely grown because of its tolerance of a range of soil and climatic conditions, but the Spelt husk is tough, fibrous and essentially indigestible, so when the ancient farmer spotted the huskless version and grew it preferentially, she did it with good reason!
Despite being a long established crop on European farms, the advent of modern farming methods, and the search for higher yielding and easier to harvest varieties of grain, sent spelt cultivation into decline. Like emmer, spelt has a hard husk covering the grains. This husk protects the grains from poor weather and insect pests, and keeps the harvested crop fresh. But the husk is also what makes spelt less attractive for cultivation on modern farms. While wheat is ready to be milled after one pass with a combine harvester, spelt requires a separate step to remove the husk before milling can begin. In addition, the grain should be stored with the husk intact to keep it fresh. But with the husk accounting for 40% of the weight of the harvest, there are also extra costs involved in transporting and storing spelt.
All this meant that spelt was no longer grown as a commercial crop in the UK. But in the 1980s, bakers began to rediscover spelt as it was both a versatile and nutritious ingredient. The fact that spelt flour makes an incredibly tasty loaf of bread should be reason enough to use it, but much of the renewed interest centres on its health benefits. Spelt contains more protein than many modern wheats, and is rich in B vitamins and fibre. There are many reports from people that it is easier to digest, ( although it is also worth considering that there are other contributing other factors such as longer and slower fermentation, or lack of additives.. ) It should be remembered that spelt is not a gluten-free alterative to wheat flour.
In contrast to modern wheat, which has been the subject of an intensive breeding programme to produce ever higher yielding, pesticide tolerant and uniform varieties, spelt’s DNA has remained pretty much the same for thousands of years. It’s a crop that grows well in most soil types (peat seems to be the one soil it doesn’t like), and shows some resistance to many of the pests and diseases that can plague wheat crops. It grows much like winter wheat. Sown in the autumn for a harvest the following summer. Although the yield is lower, spelt doesn’t require the high inputs of pesticides and fertilizers to protect and boost the crop, making it a prime candidate for organic growing.
Published with thanks to Dr Phil Howell of NIAB for his help and advice.