Ancient grains: somewhere between a trend and the recovery of roots
A fascinating insight into forgotten flours and grains that we are slowly recovering, for a healthier and more sustainable future
In the world of Western food and nutrition there are fleeting trends, such as goji berries, moringa or aloe for all occasions. However, there is a trend, which has become ever more established in recent years, concerning the use of ancient grain flours, both in catering and in home preparations. In general, we are talking about grains with reduced production and refined goodness.
Throughout Italy there has long been a newfound attention to the seeds that are being sown. For example, a careful and sustainable cultivation is increasingly developing in Lecco Brianza: timilia and khorasan went from being unknown words to becoming easily available ingredients in bakery preparations and bread products in high-end restaurants, where the bread accompaniment becomes a fundamental part of the experience.
To learn more, we need to know basically two things: the territory and which cereals are the most interesting.
There is a certain spot in Lombardy – the Park of Montevecchia and the Curone Valley – that has become a protected park combining areas dedicated to livestock farming, areas of environmental interest, civil and religious architecture and, of course, agriculture. All of this with the bonus of the splendid Orobian Alps in the background.
Here, time stands still, one delves into history and traditions and protects an area that is deeply familiar with its roots, in history as in food. Ancient maize flour, in an area in which polenta is an absolute staple on the table, is an example of the virtuous recovery of the local tradition: it is available in the Cascina La Costa shop.
In this area that is not widely known but no less fascinating, you can go hiking, horse riding and cycling, stroll among the vineyards and discover archaeological sites of Roman and Gallic settlements (in the village of Missaglia) or cross flowering fields around the Cernusco Lombardone hills.
So why have grains that had fallen into disuse been rediscovered, and why are they so different from the flours we use every day?
Ancient grains derive from robust plants that, historically, needed less care and are resistant to periods of drought, bad weather and pest attacks. So, they grow without too much external interference and ‘on-field’ processing. For this reason, they are very suitable for organic cultivation, at the disadvantage of a lower yield than modern cereals cultivated on a large scale.
In more detail, the most common ones are basically three:
Monococcum Spelt Flour: the oldest cereal of which information is available (it is said to have been cultivated as early as 7500 BC). Supposedly the first to be cultivated by man in the Middle East, it is low in calories and is often used together with other flours because it does not leaven much.
Senatore Cappelli wheat: there is an interesting history behind this wheat and a precise birth date, 1915. In the early 1900s, in Italy, at a time of food shortages and increased demand for wheat, varieties with a higher nutritional value were in demand. And it was in this climate that Marchese Raffaele Cappelli, senator and promoter of the agricultural reform, gave agronomist Nazareno Strampelli some land near Foggia to carry out experimental sowing. That very year, the agronomist found the perfect durum wheat and named it after the Senator. This variety became one of the most cultivated but was replaced over time by more productive plantations. However, Senatore Cappelli durum wheat has remained in history and appreciated as a niche product for fine processing.
Gentil Rosso: a variety with a unique colour, which is cultivated in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna (where it is often used to make piadina). Interestingly, this wheat contains considerable amounts of vanillin, which gives it a sweet and delicate aroma and flavour.
Even the method of making flour from ancient grains is linked to ancient times: it is generally stone ground and thus remains coarser and richer in fibre (retaining all the grain), rich in vitamins and mineral salts, with a lower glycaemic index.
But it is not only the organoleptic properties of spelt or other grains that make them appealing, because although they are more digestible and grown without pesticides, the most interesting aspect is their taste and flavour.
A freshly baked loaf of bread made with an ancient grain flour has an intensely characteristic aroma and a unique crunchiness, just like the bread made in the old days. The traditional way.