History Bites: Spelt


The inspiration for this week’s History Bite came from a conversation I was having with one of our regulars. I mean, she also happens to be Anna’s mom, but that’s besides the point. We got to talking about the pasta box for this week, and the History Bites. She was very curious about spelt flour and why we chose it for this week’s box. 
The main reason we chose spelt was its fantastic taste, but it’s also not heavily processed and it comes from a great source. But in talking to her, I realized that I didn’t really know the history of spelt. Needless to say, this conversation sent me on a bit of a Wiki-rampage.

My research process tends to be pretty sporadic and involves me opening way too many tabs. In fact this is my screen on a good day:
screencap wheatphylogeny
I’ve always loved science. I studied biology with a specialization in ecology and evolution at Carleton University, although I didn’t finish my degree. Somewhere along the line I realized I'd much rather don an apron than a lab coat. But my interest in it remains, so when I started looking into the history of spelt, it’s where my brain went.

Before we delve into the history of spelt flour, we have to zoom out and look at evolution. If I had to put a recurring theme to this blog it would definitely be the interconnectedness of all life. I enjoy going for a morning walk thinking about how the grass on my front lawn is a distant relative of my bagel. And it’s that grass that’s the star of our blog today. In fact, it’s the only reason we have modern technology, civilization, and those bagels I’m so fond of.

Spelt Field
Wheat (along with spelt, and all cereal grains) is a type of grass. The first evidence of grass in the fossil record is between 60 and 70 million years ago. But we’re going to focus at roughly the 10,000 year old mark. This is when we begin to see humans farming in the archaeological record. 

There are a few things that happened when humans started farming that were critical to our development as a species. One was that we started cultivating a wild variation of grain which became einkorn wheat. This grain is still farmed and eaten today, and it’s incredibly tolerant to harsh conditions. Despite it having a low yield, it can survive droughts, floods, and even salt water. Genealogically speaking it’s one of the (if not the) oldest crops to have ever existed, and how rugged it is likely contributes to how successful all of its offspring have been. 

Einkorn eventually got crossed with another wild wheat strain. The offspring was cultivated to become emmer wheat, which is also still farmed today. Have you ever heard of farro? That’s right, one of the most delicious Italian staples includes emmer wheat. Native to Ethiopia, it’s naturally disease resistant, and grows really well in mountainous areas and poor soil.

All of this brings us to spelt. Emmer wheat mixed with a species of wild goatgrass, producing spelt. The first evidence of it appearing takes place around 7,500 years ago near the Black Sea. Spelt (ζειά [zeiá] in Greek) was said to have been a gift from the Greek goddess Demeter, in a throwback to last week's History Bite

Since spelt is a husked grain, it thrives very well in cold climates, which is part of the reason for its abundance. There’s evidence of it on Neolithic sites in central Europe, as well as throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was cultivated in Germany, France, and the Netherlands throughout the middle ages, and became the major crop throughout Europe in the 9th century CE.

Einkorn, emmer, and spelt are all ancient grains. This doesn’t mean that it refers to movies as picture shows, and doesn’t know how to work an iPod. It means that there’s been minimal variation on the grain in recent times (unlike modern wheat, corn, and rice). It wasn’t until the 20th century that spelt was replaced by modern bread wheat. 
Speltgrains
So what makes spelt so different? Spelt flour has a much nuttier flavour than bread wheat flour, and it functions completely differently. It’s time for the G-word: gluten. The gluten contained in spelt flour is structured differently than what is found in commercial wheat flour. Gluten is essentially the glue that holds bread together. As a result spelt is more fragile and crumbly. It’s really easy to over-mix spelt flour. 

Spelt is also higher in vitamins, fibre, and protein than commercial wheat flour. It’s water-soluble and easy to digest. This, combined with the way the gluten in spelt functions, makes it a good candidate for people who are sensitive to gluten. The downside is that it’s tougher to process and takes more skill to work with. If you try it out at home, start with a 50:50 blend of AP and spelt flour, then mess around from there. 

So there you have it. Spelt in a nutshell…I mean wheat husk. Spelt along with its cousins einkorn, emmer, and the other ancient grains, paved the way for the growth and development of complex societies. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture and domestication of these species that we were able to switch from hunter-gatherer societies to settled, structured villages. These crops brought humans into the Neolithic era, and still power our society today. Wheat is still in the top five most produced crops.

So, there’s a brief summary of the history of what is arguably the most important food in our shared ancestry. Phew. I thought I'd never get through all that. 
So next time you take a bite of toast, or twirl a noodle of pasta, take a second to think about its distant relatives. Humanity in a single bite. Amazing.

Until next time.

Stay hungry,
-Mike

Leave a comment