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
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