Emmer Wheat: Ancient Bread Rediscovered

Emmer wheat has a long history as a staple in Mediterannean food, and now the ancient wheat is becoming more readily available in the United States.

  • Emmer wheat, also known as farro, is a Mediterranean staple gaining popularity in the U.S.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • There are several distinct types of emmer wheat; these landraces are becoming increasingly difficult to find due to the popularity of hybrid grains.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

Try emmer wheat in this Alexandrian Bread Recipe.

There was a good deal of rejoicing among small-scale growers when the Baker Creek catalog began to carry emmer wheat. Those of us who have been growing this ancient wheat experimentally have always understood how complicated it has been to get it up to commercial scale in this country. Now, thanks to Baker Creek, everyone can grow it and enjoy its unique history and culinary benefits.

Until now, most of the emmer wheat available in specialty shops was imported from Italy, where it is known as farro. High-end Italian restaurants in the United States have created a demand for emmer, mainly because it is still such a significant ingredient in regional Italian cookery and, therefore, a symbol of authenticity. Yet let us not forget that emmer is also the ancient grain of food cultures throughout the Mediterranean, and especially of Egypt, the Bread Basket of the ancient world.

In spite of romantic Hollywood movies about Cleopatra, the real reason the Romans invaded Egypt had nothing to do with sex — they wanted Egyptian wheat to feed their armies. This vast, systemic military demand for wheat in the form of gruel and bread was continued by the Byzantine Empire through its annual annona, or military tithe laid upon Egyptian estates in order to pay for the cost of the imperial armies. The Arab conquest of Egypt in the 600s shattered that old pattern and doubtless, from a long historical view, set in place the slow but irrevocable economic consequences that finally led to the decline of the Byzantine Empire.

This little digression into the political history of bread has nothing to do with the way our recipe will taste, unless we have underestimated your “taste memory” and all the things it has drawn together to make food a part of who you are. Reconstructing ancient bread is no easy task because we can only guess at the original proportions, and since the bread was artisanal at every step, it probably varied from baker to baker. Consider that ancient wheat was hand harvested, hand ground, hand baked ... in short real food by any dictionary definition.

Simply put, emmer wheat was the cornerstone of ancient Mediterranean diet. The flour was ground for bread, and no ancient Greek-style pita would be authentic without it. The famous bread of Alexandria mentioned by ancient Greek writer Athenaeus, and eaten fresh-baked or dried as rusks for shipboard fare, was based entirely on emmer wheat flavored with cumin and fenugreek. In ancient Greek this type of bread was called "boletinos artos," or “mushroom” bread, because the loaf was flat on the bottom and resembled a mushroom cap or bowl turned upside down.



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