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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - The Cut Food -

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’

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