WITH THE GRAIN
It kept Roman armies on the march and provides the daily bread for those who can’t tolerate wheat. Now spelt is shaking off its worthy image, with cookies and muffins coming to a high street near you. Amy Bryant meets the grain’s biggest champion. Photogr
ALMOST BEFORE our handshake is over, Roger Saul is talking Hagberg levels. The method of detecting ripeness in wheat or spelt before it becomes weather damaged (also known as the Falling Number, I discover afterwards) is of utmost importance – even during such a hot, sunny summer as this – to the founder of Sharpham Park, Britain’s leading organic spelt producer. ‘If it goes below a certain reading you can’t use it for milling,’ he explains. ‘And that wouldn’t be good news.’ Later, we’ll discuss soil ph (at 6.8, his Somerset acreage is perfect for growing the ancient grain), ‘min till’ (minimum tillage, a conservation farming practice that turns the soil as little as possible), and phosphates. As the UK’S expert on spelt, Saul can explain the minutiae of its production, from sowing to milling. And yet, when he embarked on the project 14 years ago, he really hadn’t a clue.
Saul has lived on the site of Sharpham Park (now a 300-acre organic farm, home to red deer, White Park cattle and spelt) for 40 years, having bought a semi-detached manor house with an uninterrupted view of Glastonbury Tor back when the adjacent land was used for dairy farming. At the time he was CEO of Mulberry, the designer label he created in 1971 with just £500 capital to buy leather for the belts and handbags he sold to London boutiques. Gradually, he and his wife, Monty – a former Dior model who became Mulberry’s retail director – bought more of the former abbot’s house, then 30 acres
of land. In 2002, just as his ownership of Mulberry ended abruptly after a dispute with billionaire shareholder Christina Ong, the rest of the farm came on sale. ‘We bought it with barely any money, sold our Mulberry shares, and that was the beginning.’
Farming had been a ‘romantic dream’ ever since Saul had scampered over hay bales on his grandparents’ farm in Suffolk. Having tired of dairy machines starting up at 4am each morning, it certainly wasn’t going to be solely cattle he reared. A mixed-economy approach, with beef animals, sheep and cereals was the aim. But his focus shifted when Saul’s sister, Rosemary, was ‘trying every sort of diet’ to battle her secondary cancer. ‘She said, “Why don’t you grow spelt?”’ An internet search threw up one page of results. ‘Now you’ll get a million,’ says Saul. The only spelt loaves he could find were ‘square things that if you threw them at the wall would make a hole. It was extremely worthy. I thought to myself, oh dear, I wonder if this will turn out to be hippy bread?’
Today, Sharpham Park is a tapestry of golden fields, deer pasture and orchards of plum and walnut trees that Saul recces in his beloved Willys MB jeep. Between the crops, oaks line the old abbot’s ride, replanted after the centuries-old track was discovered and a map from 1600 showed their position. Beyond a field of spelt not long off harvesting lies ancient woodland. By delving into the historical records of the area (‘often somebody will appear with a little bit of information; it’s fascinating’), Saul has restored the essence of Sharpham, right down to the walnut trees (after finding a nut, along with scallop shells and boars’ teeth, in the blue lias walls of the house) – and spelt, which if the discovery of a carbonated grain found in nearby peatland is anything to go by, was likely grown there 4,000 years ago.
‘We had no idea when we started,’ he tells me. During the two years of conversion to organic – when even the Soil Association thought him mad for entering at a time when others, with milk prices foundering, were streaming out – ‘we saw so many things as naive farmers that we wouldn’t have done otherwise’. Having lost so much in the Ong fallout, it seems an incredible leap of faith. But Saul’s Mulberry roots run deep, framing his approach. ‘I was used to going to different countries and finding things, so went to Italy, France and Germany to buy seed.’
‘People ask the difference between wheat and spelt and I often say, you’ll go for longer on spelt’