The Spelt

We distinguish the small spelt (Triticum monococcum L.), the medium spelt (Triticum dicoccum Schrank), and the big spelt (Triticum spelta L.). The farmer’s interest is just for the medium and the big spelt, for which populations, selected production lines, and cultivated varieties exist.

The small spelt nowadays is useful in the work of genetic betterment. It is different from the cultivated one because it maintains the “dressed cariossidi” (covered by glumes and glumellas) at the end of the threshing. The elimination of the exterior wrappers needs a further “undressement” that, together with the low yields, has caused the almost total abandon of this cultivation.

The spelt is one of the most ancient cereals used by humanity. His cultivation goes back at least to 7000 B.C. It has been the basic food of Assyrians, Egyptians, and all Middle-East and North African populations.

Attending to recent studies, the birthplace should be Palestine. Nowadays, it is shed a spontaneous kind of spelt (Triticum dicoccoides); it seems that this cultivation has been taken from this region to all the others the nomadic shepherds.

It’s a graminaceous plant with an erect and resistant stalk and a linear leaf growing in the mountain areas. The name “spelt” means fibber in Latin, and it’s a particular type of wheat, which was widely cultivated in the Roman age. After that, it has been almost abandoned and only recently rediscovered for many purposes. Without this sweet and nutritious cereal (it’s known that 100 grains can give a lot of energy), Roman legions, who commonly received it (also as wages), wouldn’t have conquered the world. Two dishes were appreciated at that time: the “mola salsa” prepared with the toasted spelt flour and salt, and the “libum,” a kind of spelt pie, also offered to divinities during the propitiatory ceremonies.

Salt and spelt grains were offered to all the rural divinities, particularly Demetra, the earth goddess, to appease a good harvest during the “Idi of March.”

Also, in the bible (Ezekiel 44-30), the spelt is mentioned with the Hebraic name of “Arisab.” Nowadays, this cereal is used for cooking national dishes in Lebanon, Libya, and almost all Middle-East countries, even if called with different names (Taboule’, Kibbu,’ Salf).

Generally, these dishes result being more or less the same course, that is kind of a very thick soup of soaked spelt (raw or cooked), chickpeas, mint, olive oil, and pepper, with which they stuff just bloomed tender fig leaves. So, for example, Lebanon’s Kibbu’ is made of soaked and boiled spelt in the tomato sauce with sheep meat. The Libic Kibbu’, known as well in Tunisia and Morocco, is made of soaked and boiled spelt, fillets of fish, chopped pumpkin, and walnut slices.

The spelt has been widely used with a medicinal aim, and many ancient scriptures quote cures with this precious food. In the Padania plane (Italy), it was cultivated even in the early Neolithic age.

The most ancient testimony of the wheat cultivation comes from Vho (Piadena, near Cremona), wherein the 4300 b.C. primitive wheat, the most slender of all the cultivated wheat species, the small spelt (Triticum monococcum) was sowed.

The small spelt shows erect green-yellow spikelets flatted on the sides. The single spikelets with two flowers are ordered on two lines. Typically just the lowest flower of each spike matures, from which the denomination “monococcum.” The small spelt is “dressed,” that is, the grains, the matured ones too, remain tenaciously wrapped up, differently than the “naked” grain; in the threshing, only the spikelets are removed, and so it’s necessary to roast them in a drying oven to set the grains free.

In the Neolithic age, the essential cereal was the small spelt (Triticum monococcum), next to the big spelt (Triticum dicoccum), and the barley (Hordeum vulgare). In the north of Italy, the inventory of the cultivated plants coincides with the ones of the near Orient, where the farm revolution occurred. In the middle and the late Neolithic age, the cultivation spread out in the interior alpine area; the farmer came from the south in the valleys, as results by the presence of cereal in the provinces of Brescia, Trento, and Bolzano.

In addition to the two quoted bowls of cereal that were cultivated at that time, also the big spelt and another “dressed” wheat, very similar to the small spelt. The spikes of the big spelt are heavier and more hanging down if they are matured; the spikelets have three flowers and usually just two mature, so the harvest is more profitable.

In the Roman age, there has been a radical change in the cultivation of cereals: in the middle-alps, the barley (Hordeum vulgare) and the big spelt (Triticum dicoccum) got considerable importance, followed by spelz (Triticum spelta) and the dwarf grain (Triticum aestivum compactum); along the time, the small spelt lost prestige, and it was just marginally cultivated; the millet (Panicum miliaceum) took over the foxtail (Setaria Italica).

In the high Middle-age, or the age of the barbarian migration, the most critical products remained the big spelt (Triticum dicoccum) and the barley (Hordeum vulgare), followed by dwarf grain (Truiticum aestivum compactum) and spelz (Triticum spelta); the small spelt (Triticum monococcum) was cultivated just in the areas with a frigid climate, where it could grow neither grain nor spelz.

The spelt is nowadays cultivated in Garfagnana (Tuscany) in modest quantity but with excellent quality to obtain the protected origin denomination (Dop) in the countries of the European Community. In some areas of Umbria, and Monteleone of Spoleto in particular, the cultivation of spelt has never disappeared. For the San Nicola festival in Bari, a typical spelt minestrone is prepared on the sixth of December.

It’s not a coincidence that the spelt minestrone was always suggested to old and young people, more influenced by the risks of underfeeding. In Umbria and Marche, the antique spelt varieties are still cultivated, and they are particularly appreciated for the flavor and the richness of fibers.

Enrico Massetti was born in Milan, Italy.
Now he lives in Washington, DC, USA.
Still, he regularly visits his hometown
and enjoys going around all the places in his home country
especially those he can reach by public transportation.

Enrico loves writing guide books on travel in Italy
to help his friends that go to Italy to visit
and enjoy his old home country.
He also publishes books on the Argentine tango dance.

You can reach Enrico at