From the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, to the coast of the Mediterranean and down into Egypt stretches the Fertile Crescent. Aptly known as the “cradle of civilization,” this land bore witness to many of the earliest human settlements. Historians have documented the development of basic architecture, tools, weapons, agriculture and a reliance upon the foods grown in cultivated fields to as far back as 9,000 B.C.E. Cereals, grasses and grains were among the first crops to be harvested and prepared, usually by grinding them into meal and cooking them over a fire. Grains were also ground into flour for bread, or fermented and brewed into beer.
Recently, high-end restaurants have begun to experiment with ancient grains, garnering media attention and interest. Their rich, complex flavors, coupled with the health benefits of cooking with whole grains has also led to increased interest in the home kitchen, but not without reluctance and some misconceptions. When researching for this post, however, I was fortunate to be able to avail of a wonderful local authority, Liz L’Etoile of Four Star Farms – she and I spent a long time on the phone chatting about grains, harvesting and sustainability. Her experience and knowledge gave color to the realities of farming ancient grains in the modern world. We source barley, wheatberries, spelt and cornmeal from Four Star Farms, a wonderful local farm at the forefront of efforts to reintroduce traditional grains locally. If you are interested in pursuing the topic further, I also recommend the book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. Written by Cambridge-based, Maria Speck, it was selected as a Top 10 Cookbook of 2011 by The Washington Post and a Notable Cookbook of 2011 by The New York Times. Known for her clarity and insight into the world of ancient grains, Ms. Speck’s book is a great resource. In her opinion, whole grains are not just punitive health food but savory and luscious, easy to prepare and enjoy daily!
What is a grain?
By definition, a grain is the edible seed of a cereal grass. Also known as “berries” or “kernels,” they are comprised of four basic elements: the hull, bran, endosperm and germ. The hull refers to the outermost layers of the grain, most of which is removed after harvesting. Next is the bran, which is dense in nutrients such as fiber, fatty acids, protein and vitamins. The bran must be intact for a grain to be considered whole. The endosperm is the starchy tissue surrounding the seed, or germ. The germ itself is the reproductive part of the grain and is a concentrated source of nutrients, including vitamin E, folic acid, zinc and magnesium, among others.
Barley is a self-pollinating member of the grass family. When speaking of domesticated varieties, barley is split into two-row and six-row categories – the difference between them relating to the placement of the fertile spikelet (a small or secondary spike of grass on the stalk). In two-row barley, only the central spikelet is fertile. Six-row barley is characterized by fertile lateral spikelets and a higher protein content. Most barley found on the shelves of grocery stores are two-row, as the higher protein content of six-row makes the grain less palatable for human consumption and more suitable for animal feed.
At Formaggio Kitchen, we offer both pearled and hulled two-row barley. Pearled barley is barley that has been polished to remove the hull and bran of the grain. In contrast, the hulled barley grain is intact, with only the tough outer hulls being removed. This difference is similar to the difference between white rice and brown rice. While less nutrient dense and lower in fiber and protein, pearled barley is often preferred as it takes a shorter amount of time to cook. It is easily substituted for rice in risotto and fluffs up nicely as a pilaf. Hulled barley, while slightly more labor intensive, offers the full health benefits of a whole grain and has a more complex, earthy flavor. This grain is hearty, versatile and excellent in salads, soups, and stews. A Moroccan lamb tagine with barley is the perfect meal to serve alongside early spring vegetables and crusty bread for dipping.
Emmer wheat is a type of hard red wheat.* An ancient grain that has nourished Europe and Asia for thousands of years, Emmer wheat is often known as farro, especially in Italy. However, the word “farro” was used indefinitely across regions, sometimes meaning different things. Some regions used the word farro to specifically refer to Emmer wheat, while other cultures used “farro” as an all-encompassing word for grains like spelt or even barley. The products we stock at Formaggio Kitchen are labeled farro and those are the true berries of Emmer wheat. Botany and linguistics aside, Emmer wheat yields a full-bodied grain, rich and deliciously chewy. It pairs wonderfully with robust foods such as wild mushrooms, game meat, tomatoes and red wine.
*Varieties of wheat are categorized based on protein content, nutrient density, performance and time of harvest. Wheat can either be harvested in the winter or in the spring. Winter wheat contains about 12% protein, whereas spring wheat contains a bit more, about 14-15%. Two major groupings within these harvests are hard wheats and soft wheats. Hard varieties are the most common and versatile, with a high gluten content perfect for breads and pastas. Soft varieties are lower in protein and are best for pastries or brioche. Within hard and soft wheats, there are red and white varieties. Red wheats lend a rustic, earthy flavor while white wheats are milder and usually fall within the soft wheat spectrum due to their lower protein content.
Similar to a hard winter wheat, spelt is an ancient grain with a deep, nutty flavor. Many believe it is one of the oldest ancient grains, preceded only by Einkorn and Emmer. Despite its long history, spelt was only introduced to the United States in the late 1800s, by Swiss immigrants who settled mostly in eastern Ohio. Consequently, most spelt is grown in the Buckeye state, although many farms across the nation have begun to cultivate this crop as well. Sammey spelt is a non-GMO spelt, meaning it is a species or variety that is grown without using a genetically modified seed. Spelt can be ground into flour for breads and pastas but is also available hulled, similar to barley.
Unlike barley, spelt and wheat, maize is an ancient grain that was solely cultivated in the Americas. A descendant of a wild grass known as Teosinte, its origins can be traced to prehistoric times. Domesticated by the indigenous peoples of Central America, maize was dietary staple in Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, cooked whole or ground into meal or flour for bread. With the arrival of European settlers, this versatile grain soon expanded north and became one of the most widely grown crops in the United States. At Formaggio Kitchen, we source hominy, grits, and coarse and fine cornmeal from small, sustainable growers. A grain that is delicious and true to its prehistoric origins, these products are the antithesis of low grade, genetically modified corn that is grown in much of the country. From hot johnnycakes, to polenta, maize is a summertime favorite best washed down with a light saison or pale ale.
The world of ancient grains is vast and complex. Here at the shop, our shelves are absolutely bursting with interesting grains and flours – each with its own story, flavor and characteristics. We’re always excited to discuss and deliberate over their uses and best ways to prepare them!
Emily Shannon is a cooking enthusiast and works in the produce department and as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.