Emmer Wheat: Ancient Bread Rediscovered

Emmer wheat has a long history as a staple in Mediterannean food, and now the ancient wheat is becoming more readily available in the United States.

Emmer Wheat

Emmer wheat, also known as farro, is a Mediterranean staple gaining popularity in the U.S.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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Try emmer wheat in this Alexandrian Bread Recipe.

There was a good deal of rejoicing among small-scale growers when the Baker Creek catalog began to carry emmer wheat. Those of us who have been growing this ancient wheat experimentally have always understood how complicated it has been to get it up to commercial scale in this country. Now, thanks to Baker Creek, everyone can grow it and enjoy its unique history and culinary benefits.

Until now, most of the emmer wheat available in specialty shops was imported from Italy, where it is known as farro. High-end Italian restaurants in the United States have created a demand for emmer, mainly because it is still such a significant ingredient in regional Italian cookery and, therefore, a symbol of authenticity. Yet let us not forget that emmer is also the ancient grain of food cultures throughout the Mediterranean, and especially of Egypt, the Bread Basket of the ancient world.

In spite of romantic Hollywood movies about Cleopatra, the real reason the Romans invaded Egypt had nothing to do with sex — they wanted Egyptian wheat to feed their armies. This vast, systemic military demand for wheat in the form of gruel and bread was continued by the Byzantine Empire through its annual annona, or military tithe laid upon Egyptian estates in order to pay for the cost of the imperial armies. The Arab conquest of Egypt in the 600s shattered that old pattern and doubtless, from a long historical view, set in place the slow but irrevocable economic consequences that finally led to the decline of the Byzantine Empire.

This little digression into the political history of bread has nothing to do with the way our recipe will taste, unless we have underestimated your “taste memory” and all the things it has drawn together to make food a part of who you are. Reconstructing ancient bread is no easy task because we can only guess at the original proportions, and since the bread was artisanal at every step, it probably varied from baker to baker. Consider that ancient wheat was hand harvested, hand ground, hand baked ... in short real food by any dictionary definition.

Simply put, emmer wheat was the cornerstone of ancient Mediterranean diet. The flour was ground for bread, and no ancient Greek-style pita would be authentic without it. The famous bread of Alexandria mentioned by ancient Greek writer Athenaeus, and eaten fresh-baked or dried as rusks for shipboard fare, was based entirely on emmer wheat flavored with cumin and fenugreek. In ancient Greek this type of bread was called "boletinos artos," or “mushroom” bread, because the loaf was flat on the bottom and resembled a mushroom cap or bowl turned upside down.

Emmer wheat was also harvested while still green (or more accurately, not quite ripe), parboiled for a short period of time and then sun dried. This sun-dried and partially cooked wheat was ground to make cracked wheat or grits of various textures, a preparation known today as bulgur wheat, but called "kondros," or "tragos" in ancient Greek. The green grain was also smoked and is still popular in Syrian and Lebanese cookery under the name "freekeh." The benefits of the green grain were twofold: quicker cooking time and easier to digest. Additionally, the tenderness of the grain prepared this way recommended it for use in elegant dishes — elegant when compared against the coarse fare of the rural peasantry in ancient times.

While it is indeed a happy occasion to see emmer appearing in seed catalogs, keep in mind that emmer is itself characterized by great biodiversity, not surprising given its age and the many places where it was grown. This biodiversity is generally expressed in the form of landraces, varieties that evolved in rural areas through long and careful selection. There are black emmers, black-awned emmers, “blue” emmers with blue-gray seeds, short emmers, tall emmers, emmers with red seeds, and emmers adapted to very specific types of microclimates. In fact, there are several hundred distinct types, and the best collection may be found at the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. The institute began collecting rare grains in the early 1900s at a time when many of the old landraces were still being planted — today most of these old grains have been pushed aside by hybrid wheat.

The best place to see and sample the vast diversity of traditional emmer wheat food preparations was the farmers market in Aleppo, Syria, but unfortunately that historic market has recently fallen victim to the ongoing civil war in that country. This is all the more reason why concerned growers like Baker Creek should keep these ancient grains alive and commercially available. Meanwhile, lest we forget our ancient roots and all those delicious breads mentioned in ancient texts, let’s have a little fun with history and bake some loaves of Alexandrian bread, for certainly this delicacy was a local focal point of good dining and feasting. Our recipe is a generalized reconstruction since no exact recipe has survived. But then, as every good baker knows, good bread is an art form. It’s not about the recipe; it’s all about the quality of the flour. Organic is the only way to go on that point because there was no non-organic wheat grown in ancient times.

Try emmer wheat in this Alexandrian Bread Recipe.