Wednesday, August 11, 2004


I know I'm supposed to be analyzing today's food sections, but I got distracted by Marian Burros's whole grain article. Burros says that spelt "is similar to" farro, but the cook's thesaurus site she recommends is not so precise, conflating the two. Farro, strictly speaking, is what the italians call emmer wheat, which is a common name that probably doesn't mean anything to you, which is why we refer to the scientific name:

Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum

Unfortunately, where cereals are concerned, scientific names are only slightly more helpful than common ones, and you will also see emmer called Triticum dicoccum. I am using the former nomenclature because it helps to clarify the genetic relationships of the different varieties. Anyway, spelt is Triticum aestivum var. spelta, and the difference is important, because it means that spelt is hexaploid -- it is basically a Triticum turgidum that has acquired the fabled D genome from Aegilops squarossa (just trust me on this), the crucial evolutionary event that created bread wheat (Triticum aestivum).

Granted the distinction between the two, the question remains, do Italians distinguish them clearly in their common names? Surprise: no. Or not really: this helpful chart (taken from this pdf) reveals that spelt is called gran farro (and einkorn -- don't even ask -- is called piccolo farro), but I suspect that this is perhaps more precision than really obtained when they were all grown regularly (although, as you can see, the morphology is quite distinct, and may therefore have encouraged the distinction -- but remember these people still call corn "turkish grain"). The point is more or less moot, because the only "farro" you are going to see in a store is Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum.

In other grain news, a new report from Ohalo II (background) demonstrates that they were processing wild barley at least 10,000 years before domestication Piperno et al., "Processing of wild cereal grains in the Upper Palaeolithic revealed by starch grain analysis," Nature 430, 670-673. That is to say, people figured out the appeal of refined flours a long time ago. Also, although there was evidence of grains other than barley, they could not be identified for technical reasons -- demonstrating again that the staff of life needs to be defined more broadly.

Which brings us to further considerations on the meaning of bread: I got a very nice email from the OED that politely explained that I am a moron, because they do indeed have a sense for bread meaning food in general:

4. a. Taken as a type of ordinary food or victual. (Perhaps from the Lord's Prayer.) bread of idleness: food not worked for; so similar phrases, as bread of affliction, etc. full of bread: full-fed.

c1175 Lamb. Hom. 63 Gif us to dei ure deies bred. 1340 Ayenb. 110 Vayre uader oure bryad of eche daye yef ous to day. 1382 WYCLIF Isa. xxxiii. 16 Bred to hym is oue, his watris ben feithful. 1388 Deut. xvi. 3 Thou schalt ete breed of affliccioun. c1400 Destr. Troy 13549 Me bus, as a beggar, my bred for to thigge. 1535 COVERDALE Ex. xxiii. 25 So shal he blesse thy bred & thy water [WYCLIF, looues, and watris]. 1593 SHAKES. Rich. II, III. i. 21 Eating the bitter bread of banishment....
b. fig.
c1380 WYCLIF John vi. 35, I am breed of lyf. 1542-60 BECON Potat. for Lent. Wks. (1843) 105 Touch not the thievish breads of perverse doctrine. 1660 JER. TAYLOR Worthy Commun. i. �1. 21 The holy Sacrament..the bread of elect souls. 1875 HAMERTON Intell. Life X. iv. 358 The daily bread of literature and art.

I think I can be excused for bailing on the 4a. definition proper, but the cites make it clear that this is what we are talking about (even if some of those under 4a. should go under 4b). It is clear, if we can trust the sample, that the concept arrived with Christianity, especially the Lord's Prayer, which among other things reinforces its Mediterranean-ness. I still wonder how you can make the distinction, in the Lord's Prayer, between literal and metaphorical (or, strictly speaking, synecdochic): is "daily bread" supposed to represent everything one could eat, or just, literally, bread -- and is there even a difference? I say no.

serendipitous update [businesswire]:

ConAgra Food Ingredients is introducing a revolutionary whole-grain flour - Ultragrain White Whole Wheat - that allows consumers to enjoy the freshness, sweeter taste and smooth texture available from refined flour products in 100 percent whole-wheat products. To be unveiled at the International Baking Industry Expo in Las Vegas, the breakthrough ingredient combines the nutritional benefits of whole grains with the taste, texture and finished baked qualities of refined flour.

Update II (semi-definitive): Ok, I found what must be the best resource on "farro": Hulled Wheats. Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops. 4. Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Hulled Wheats 21-22 July 1995, Castelvecchio Pascoli, Tuscany, Italy (Rome: IPGRI, 1996). The word can apparently be used for all "hulled wheats" (namely einkorn, emmer, spelt), but Italians are alleged to distinguish spelt as "faricello" or "spelta." On the other hand, some farmers are said not to be too clear about the difference, and the two are apparently, as in Spain, grown together in the same fields. So you may be getting some T. aestivum, var. spelta in your "farro," even if only in the form of genetic introgresstion into Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum from cross-pollination.

I know you think I'm crazy, but the terminology is really fucked: the official EU listing calls Farro della Garfagnana IGP spelt (even though it is clearly T. dicoccum (you can even tell from this video), the Italian agriculture ministry says farro is "Triticum monococcum, T. dicoccum e T. Spelta," then goes on to say that there are 2000 hectares of "farro medio (T. dicoccum)," and 500 of "farro grande (T. Spelta)".


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