Ancient grains are defined as all the varieties that were grown before the grains started to be selected for industrial purposes, approximately starting from the seventies of the twentieth century. The most common varieties today have all been born in recent decades to meet the needs of the food industry which needs strong flour, with a high gluten index, which they can be processed quickly and at high temperatures for the accuracy and consistency of the production processes.
In this article, we will explain the difference between ancient and modern and we will list the most famous ancient grains.
THE BIRTH OF MODERN GRAINS
Ever since men cultivated the land, they have always sought a genetic improvement of wheat. They pursued this objective in a very simple way: select the best seeds to sow them the following year.
Using what criteria did they select them? Again it is simple:
When production techniques became industrialised, the criteria have changed. We needed grains not only productive, but that could be processed at high temperatures, shortening the processing times. The guidelines have become:
- Resistance to industrial processes
The flavour has practically disappeared from the selection criteria because, with the increasingly overwhelming affirmation of very refined flours, the differences in flavours and aromas between the different varieties have practically disappeared.
Compared to ancient grains, modern grains have a much higher gluten index in the first place and give life to more elastic doughs that are resistant to thermal shock. Thus, for example, it has become possible to reduce the drying times of the pasta from 24-36 or even more hours in some cases to 2-3 hours by raising the drying temperature from 30-40 °C of the ancient processes to 120 °C and more today. With ancient Senatore Cappelli wheat, it would be impossible to produce industrial pasta: it would split too easily due to the lower presence of gluten.
WHAT ARE THE ANCIENT GRAINS OF WHEAT
The first wheat to name is undoubtedly monococco spelt, the first cereal ever cultivated by mankind. Technically, spelt is a variety of wheat in all respects and for this reason, it is sometimes also called monococcus wheat. It has a very small grain and is not very productive, which is why it was soon abandoned. It is rediscovered today for its nutritional qualities superior to other cereals.
To replace the monococco was the dicoccus spelt, which was the basis of the feeding of the Roman soldiers in the expansion phase of the Empire, so much so that the word flour derives from spelt. In turn, it has been replaced by soft wheat, which already grows without the husk that surrounds the grain and therefore allows you to skip a production step.
Another grain that has been traced for more than 2500 years is Tumminìa or Timilia, one of the varieties that supplanted spelt in Roman times, typical of Sicily.
In Northern Italy, on the other hand, particularly in Emilia Romagna, Gentil Rosso common wheat has been cultivated since at least the nineteenth century (to which the first attestation dates). In the early decades of the twentieth century, it was the most cultivated variety in Italy and is still appreciated for its great versatility. It has the characteristic of containing high levels of vanillin, present to a lesser extent also in the other ancient grains, which give this variety an incomparable delicacy and elegance.
In the 1920s the so-called “Battle of the wheat” began in Italy, a campaign launched by the fascist government to pursue productive self-sufficiency. Thus began a series of experiments to genetically improve wheat. They had nothing to do with modern genetic mutation techniques, it was simply a matter of crossing different varieties on the field in an attempt to create a new one that would combine the positive characteristics of the first two (a bit what you study in elementary school with Mendel’s experiments on pea plants).
Absolute champion of this season was the brilliant agronomist Nazareno Strampelli, father of the Senatore Cappelli durum wheat and the Mentana soft wheat, certainly, the two best results of his research, but also of a large number of other grains.
If it’s something outdated, why do we need to use them?
Ancient grains are tendentially healthier. First of all, because they were created when chemical fertilisers did not exist yet and therefore, they were made to naturally resist all most common wheat diseases. Secondly, given the smaller production, the processing chain is artisanal or semi-artisan: this means that the product is processed more slowly and at lower temperatures than do not denature the nutrients. Finally, there are also scientific studies that demonstrate their greater content in minerals and vitamins.
They are more digestible: because they have lower strength and a lower gluten index (for this reason they are also more difficult to process).
Intolerances are prevented: much has been discussed and much will be discussed about the differences in the structure of gluten, but to date, research has been done on the population (and not in the laboratory imitating human digestion, which according to scientists is impossible to reproduce in vitro ) suggest that ancient grains irritate the intestine less than modern ones. Whether it is due to gluten is not yet clear, which is why today we no longer speak of gluten intolerance but wheat intolerance.
They are better: if you ask a miller he will tell you that many ancient grains can be distinguished by the perfume that is released during milling, while modern grains are not very fragrant. Also, the artisanal or semi-artisan production chain of ancient grains gives life to tastier products also due to the higher quality processes, while modern varieties designed for industrial production are generally used in medium-low quality products.
It’s a variety of wheat very appreciated among growers because it guarantees a very high and constant production potential in all areas of central and southern Italy.
It is a medium-low size early-cycle durum wheat, with excellent resistance to fungal diseases, in particular brown rust.
Saragolla is hard and amber and has a stem higher than modern varieties of durum wheat. Its caryopsis (the seed envelope) naked and elongated more than that of any other wheat. Compared to other types of wheat, it is much more resistant to pests and therefore lends itself very well to organic cultivation.
The colour of its flour, or semolina, is an intense yellow. The characteristics of the semolina are excellent in terms of quality. The semolina obtained from the Saragolla variety of durum wheat has 3 of the main characteristics that durum wheat has to have to produce quality pasta:
Very good protein content
The exceptional quality of gluten
A high yellow index allowing to obtain an excellent quality of pasta.
The term Saragolla derives from ancient Bulgarian, where it meant “yellow grain”. The decline of Saragolla wheat begins at the end of the 18th Century when colonial conquests and population growth led to the importation of very productive durum wheat from North Africa and the Middle East and this variety remained the most cultivated only in the Adriatic side of central Italy: the hybridisation of the spikes, carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century, has accentuated its marginalisation. Currently, the Saragolla survives only in certain areas of centre-south of Italy such as in Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia and Basilicata.
Thanks to the work of small farms, such as Zilletta di Brancia, who have rediscovered it and resumed sowing it. The one found on the market is the version patented in the 1960s.
Senatore Cappelli or Cappelli is a durum wheat variety obtained by the geneticist Nazareno Strampelli – at the beginning of the 20th century at the Research Centre for the Cultivation of Cereals (Centro di Ricerca per la Cerealicoltura) in Foggia, Puglia – for genealogical selection of the North African variety “Jenah Rhetifah”.
Released in 1915, the new variety of wheat was dedicated by Strampelli to the Marchese Raffaele Cappelli from Abbruzzo, senator of the Kingdom of Italy, who, in the late nineteenth century, together with his brother his Antonio, supported Nazareno Strampelli in his activity, providing him with experimental fields, laboratories and other resources.
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