And how is that spelt?

Rev­ered by the Ro­mans, the an­cient ‘march­ing grain’ is back on the menu. Vicky Lid­dell meets the farm­ers run­ning on flour power

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

Ev­ery sum­mer, in the shadow of Glas­ton­bury Tor, a much-an­tic­i­pated har­vest takes place in the golden fields be­low. The crop is called spelt (Triticum spelta) and it’s grow­ing again on the Som­er­set Lev­els for the first time since the Bronze Age. rev­ered by the ro­mans, who called it the ‘march­ing grain’ be­cause of its slow-re­lease en­ergy lev­els, spelt is one of sev­eral so-called an­cient grains, the DNA of which have re­mained un­changed over mil­len­nia and which are in­creas­ingly pre­ferred to their re­fined and pro­cessed cousins.

Spelt is a hy­brid of em­mer wheat and goat grass and boasts a long and rich his­tory of cul­ti­va­tion due to its tol­er­ance of a wide range of soils and cli­mates. ev­i­dence has been dis­cov­ered of its use in an­cient so­ci­eties of the Mid­dle east and europe and it has a men­tion in ex­o­dus. How­ever, its tough husk makes the grain much lower yield­ing than some and, although it re­mained an es­tab­lished crop on the Con­ti­nent, in the UK, it was soon for­got­ten with the ar­rival of mod­ern farm­ing meth­ods.

Its re­nais­sance is largely thanks to the re­al­i­sa­tion of its health ben­e­fits and, in par­tic­u­lar, its unique gluten struc­ture, which al­lows it to be eaten by those with an in­tol­er­ance to the pro­tein. It’s also very high in fi­bre and an ex­cel­lent source of es­sen­tial mi­cronu­tri­ents, from cop­per, iron and man­ganese to potas­sium, zinc and B vi­ta­mins, and it was this that first caught the at­ten­tion of roger Saul.

For Mr Saul, founder of Mul­berry and owner of Sharpham Park in Som­er­set (www.sharpham­park.com; 01458 844080), the largest pro­ducer of spelt in the UK, the story be­gan in 2002, when he sold his shares in the lug­gage brand

and bought the farm­land that sur­rounded his house. ‘We sud­denly had 300 acres and didn’t know what to do with them,’ he con­fesses. ‘Back then, I hadn’t even heard of spelt.’

en­cour­aged by his late sis­ter, rose­mary, who was suf­fer­ing from bowel can­cer and look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive diet, he did some re­search and soon dis­cov­ered there was a good rea­son why spelt had been for­got­ten.

‘Spelt is 40% husk and the crop yields at most about two tons an acre, com­pared to four tons or more from wheat,’ he ex­plains. ‘Once you fac­tor in crop ro­ta­tion—or­ganic spelt can only be grown in the same soil for a year or two—and the fact that the grain must be stored in the husk, which then re­quires spe­cial re­moval ma­chin­ery, it all puts the farmer at a huge dis­ad­van­tage. Some­times, the grain doesn’t even reach the im­por­tant Hag­berg level [a mea­sure of the in­tegrity of the starch], mean­ing it can only be made into ce­real.’

For­tu­nately, Mr Saul per­sisted with the idea and, in 2004, he har­vested his first ex­per­i­men­tal spelt crop—the ini­tial wave of an or­ganic move­ment that grad­u­ally ex­panded to the cur­rent 75 acres. His stylish

Spelt is the best of grains; it con­tains suf­fi­cient fats, pro­vides strength and is eas­ier di­gestible than any other grain. It makes man’s spirit cheer­ful and serene’ Hilde­gard von Bin­gen, Bene­dic­tine abbess (1098–1179)

Scan­di­na­vian mill opened in 2007 and now pro­duces some 500 tons of tra­di­tion­ally ground grain a year. ‘In 2014, when many spelt har­vests failed, I was the last man stand­ing and the phone was ring­ing off the hook,’ he re­calls.

Mr Saul’s zeal and ir­re­press­ible en­thu­si­asm are in­fec­tious, some­thing that re­ally comes over in his re­cent cook­ery book us­ing the grain. At his restau­rant at nearby Kil­ver Court, the menu is spelt­based—the risotto is made with pearled spelt rather than rice—and, at home, he and his wife, Monty, hardly ever use other grains. ‘What­ever wheat can do, spelt can do bet­ter,’ he pro­claims.

The first farm­ers to grow the grain in the UK were Michael and Clare Mar­riage, who be­gan milling spelt at Doves Farm on the Wilt­shire/ Berk­shire bor­der in 1996 (01488 684880; www.doves­farm.co.uk). ‘I’ve al­ways been at­tracted to older va­ri­eties of wheat and grain be­cause of their dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics,’ ex­plains Mr Mar­riage. ‘If peo­ple want any­thing un­usual, they call us.’

Like many suc­cess­ful busi­nesses, Doves Farm had small be­gin­nings— the cou­ple ini­tially per­suaded Mr Mar­riage’s par­ents to let them con­vert one acre of the 350-acre fam­ily farm to or­ganic pro­duc­tion and to loan them £1,000 for an old stone mill. ‘Clare used to weigh the flour out on the kitchen scales, then we’d get in our cars and drive in op­po­site di­rec­tions to sell it,’ re­mem­bers Mr Mar­riage.

To­day, by con­trast, the mill runs 24 hours a day, five days a week and houses eight sets of mill­stones, a roller-

mill plant, pearling equip­ment and a sep­a­rate mill ded­i­cated to the bur­geon­ing gluten-free mar­ket. An­cient grains fit in well with the or­ganic ap­proach as they flour­ish in a wide range of soils and show good re­sis­tance to many of the pests and dis­eases that af­flict mod­ern wheat.

In 2009, the Mar­riages added tall, el­e­gant einkorn (Triticum mono

coc­cum)—one of the ear­li­est types of farmed wheat, de­vel­oped more than 10,000 years ago and great for pizza bases—to their reper­toire and, in 2013, earthy-flavoured em­mer

(Triticum dic­oc­cum), a tall crop with large black ears and long black whiskers that was the main ce­real grown and con­sumed in Bronze and Iron Age set­tle­ments.

Most of the fields at Doves Farm have a per­ma­nent grass mar­gin and beetle bank to pro­mote a greater di­ver­sity of species and the crop stub­ble is left to en­cour­age lap­wings and curlews. At home, the cou­ple is con­stantly test­ing new recipes with the dif­fer­ent flours, over­seen by Mrs Mar­riage, who looks af­ter prod­uct devel­op­ment. ‘Small ar­ti­san bak­eries have great suc­cess work­ing with many of the an­cient grains, the char­ac­ter­is­tics of which aren’t al­ways suited to large op­er­a­tions,’ she ad­vises.

Cater­ing for the bak­eries fur­ther north are An­drew and Sy­bille Wilkin­son, who grow and mill a range of her­itage wheat grains as well as rye, spelt, em­mer and einkorn two miles from Hadrian’s Wall in Stam­ford­ham, Northum­ber­land. The an­cient, tall-stemmed wheat is se­lected from Swiss seed banks and grows at twice the height of mod­ern va­ri­eties, which have been re­duced for eas­ier har­vest­ing.

‘The root sys­tem is twice as deep as the stalk,’ ex­plains Mr Wilkin­son, who has spent years re­search­ing ways to im­prove the bak­ing qual­ity of or­ganic wheat. ‘The deeper the roots, the more nu­tri­ents are pulled up. We’ve been los­ing our bread her­itage since be­fore the Sec­ond World War and, in our quest for ever high­eryield­ing va­ri­eties of wheat, we’ve ef­fec­tively bred out the good­ness.’

Recog­nis­ing the op­por­tu­nity to rein­tro­duce the pub­lic to ‘real’ bread, the Wilkin­sons set up Gilch­esters Or­gan­ics (01661 886119; http://gilch­esters.com) in 2005 and here, un­der the wide Northum­brian skies, they grow with­out the use of pes­ti­cides, her­bi­cides or fungi­cides. The flavour­some flour is ground slowly to re­tain the nu­tri­ents and packed in smart brown-pa­per pack­ages, be­fore be­ing sold to home bak­ers, chefs and small bak­eries.

An­other ad­vo­cate of proper bread, An­drew Whit­ley—or­ganic baker, co­founder of the Real Bread Cam­paign and au­thor of the bread-maker’s bi­ble Bread Mat­ters—is run­ning a new course this July called Bak­ing with Her­itage Grains (01968 660449; www.bread­mat­ters.com), to cater for the grow­ing in­ter­est in what he con­sid­ers to be the breads of the fu­ture. It will be run from his Scot- tish base, Mac­biehill Farm­house near Ed­in­burgh, where he tests more than 40 win­ter and spring va­ri­eties of wheat, spelt, em­mer, einkorn, rye, bar­ley and oats.

‘We’re grow­ing her­itage grains, but we’re not cre­at­ing a mu­seum,’ Mr Whit­ley as­sures me. ‘What we are try­ing to find is a wider range with more re­silience and more nu­tri­ent den­sity. How­ever, an­cient grains re­quire an­cient bread-mak­ing skills as many of the flours are low in gluten—the course will teach stu­dents to re­act to flour as a liv­ing thing.’

Although we’re still some way off his de­sire to see ‘real bread within walk­ing dis­tance for every­body’, there has been what he calls ‘a quiet and con­sis­tent rev­o­lu­tion’. In­dus­trial bread sales con­tinue to fall and peo­ple are much more in­ter­ested in the jour­ney from soil to slice. ‘We’re slowly re­turn­ing to a lo­calised world and re­viv­ing the vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween farmer, miller and baker,’ Mr Whit­ley af­firms.

‘We’ve been los­ing our bread her­itage since be­fore the Sec­ond World War’

Mak­ing grains: Roger Saul’s farm in the shadow of Glas­ton­bury Tor is the first to grow spelt on the Som­er­set Lev­els since the Bronze Age

Spelt con­tains a unique gluten struc­ture, al­low­ing it to be eaten by those with an in­tol­er­ance to the pro­tein

Michael Mar­riage and his wife, Clare, were the first farm­ers to grow spelt in the UK. The dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics of spelt, as well as einkorn and em­mer, are es­pe­cially suited to use by small ar­ti­san bak­eries

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