Spellbound by Spelt

When I first came up with the idea of a fifty mile food challenge for a month, one of my initial concerns was ‘what on earth am I going to have for breakfast?’ I’d normally have muesli or porridge, coffee and orange juice, and all of those were going to be on the forbidden list. Toast seemed the obvious next choice but where could I get local flour? And, other than honey, what was I going to have on the toast? I still haven’t really resolved the last question and the cupboard groaning under the weight of sugary home-made jam remains closed.

As for flour, there were  couple of false leads. Burcott Mill near Wells makes stoneground flour with its water mill, but uses wheat from the east of England as wheat grows better there. I was just beginning to think I was going to have to eat bacon and eggs everyday for a month. However, trawling through the internet, I eventually came across one farm near Street which produces organic spelt (Triticum spelta). Sharpham Park is owned and run by Roger Saul – who set up the Mulberry company in the 1970s- and although a mixed farm, its main produce is spelt.

Apparently it’s a distant and ancient cousin of wheat, highly nutritious and probably originating about 7,000 years ago – and growing to about five feet tall! Popular during the Bronze and Iron Ages, it is a wheat species known from genetic evidence to have originated as a hybrid of a domesticated wheat such as emmer wheat and wild goat-grass.

I had only had spelt bread once before, and made the first loaf with a little trepidation, ensuring the other ingredients were sourced locally too (eg fresh yeast from Glastonbury, local honey and butter), but it turned out OK, quite sweet and nutty, with lots of people who’ve tried it wanting to know more about the flour.  I’ve also used it for pastry, crumble topping and pasta.

Delving deeper into Sharpham Park products, I’ve also discovered their spelt porridge (see earlier blog) and tonight I used their pearlised spelt to make a kind of risotto. If you’re a die-hard Italian Arborio rice fan with a fondness for parmesan, then ‘speltotto’ may come across as a little chewy, but as I love ringing the changes in the seasons by making different risottos I didn’t want to miss out a whole month, especially with the autumn vegetables just coming in. Nor did I want to eat bread and potatoes all month. So tonight it was butternut squash and sage, with a sprinkle of cheddar, and I ate it all, enjoying every mouthful for what it was, rather than wishing it was something else. I was left thinking why we’ve become such lazy eaters, wanting food to be creamy and soft, and using ‘chewy’ pejoratively. I would definitely cook it again and also make the spelt equivalent of a rice salad.     

One concern remains though: Sharpham Park is an upmarket range, beautifully packaged, more expensive than most flours and cereals, and – just as importantly – using produce from one farm. In order to meet future demands for local food as transport costs soar and imported produce becomes relatively expensive, more farmers in Somerset are needed to start growing it so that it moves from being a slightly quirky and expensive health food to being main stream.

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