The Spelt

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

The small spelt nowadays is useful in the work of the 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 treshing. 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 cereal used by the mankind. His cultivation goes back at least to 7000 B.C. It has been the basic food of Assyrians, Egyptians and of all the Middle-East and North Africa populations.

Attending to recent studies the birthplace should be Palestine, where also nowadays is shed a spontaneous kind of spelt (triticum dicoccoides); it seems that this cultivation have been taken from this region to all the others by the nomadic shepherds.

It’s a graminaceous plant with an erect and resistant stalk and with a linear leaf, that grows 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 precious 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 really 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, but particularly to Demetra, the earth goddess, to propitiate 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 to cook national dishes in Lebanon, Libya, and in almost all the 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), chikpeas, mint, olive oil and pepper, with which they stuff just bloomed tender fig leaves. The 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 also with a medicinal aim, and there are many ancient scriptures that quote cures with this precious food. In the Padania plane (Italy) it was cultivated even in the earl Neolithic age.

The most ancient testimony of the cultivation of the wheat comes from Vho (Piadena, near Cremona), where in the 4300 b.C. a 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. Normally 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 treshing 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 most important cereal was the small spelt (Triticum monococcum), next the big spelt (triticum dicoccum) and the barley (Hordeum vulgare). In the north of Italy the inventory of the plants that were cultivated at that time coincides with the ones of the near Orient, where was occurred the farm revolution. In the middle and in the late Neolithic age, the cultivation spread out also in the interior alpine area; the farmer came from 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 cereals 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 have been a radical change in the cultivation of cereals: in the middle-alps the barley (Hordeum vulgare) and the big spelt (Triticum dicoccum) got big importance, followed by spelz (Triticum spelta) and the dwarf grain (Triticum aestivum compactum); along the time, the small spelt lost importance and it was just marginally cultivated; the millet (Panicum miliaceum) took over the foxtail (Setaria Italica).

In the high Middle-age, or age of the barbarian migration, the most important 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 rigid climate, where it couldn’t grow neither grain, nor spelz.

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

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