Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: Janaury-February 2010

February 23, 2010
By Stephanie Ortenzi

To discover the latest, greatest ‘superfoods,’ we can look back to what sustained the very earliest civilizations

The romance of food is almost as great as taking simple pleasure in it. A perfect piece of bread dipped in a verdant olive oil, dusted with coarse sea salt and washed down with a simple, good wine can be transcendent.

Then comes the romance of how our food comes to be. Yeast is fed sweetness and given warmth. It becomes more of itself with flour and the gifted working of human hands. Between large stones, as if between a rock and a hard place, the dense meat of the olive is pulverized into an elixir. A cluster of small fruits is crushed and made to wait until the juice cooks itself to conjure up a unique bouquet.

The origins of our food are romantic, too, because they go back nearly 20,000 years. They’re witnesses to history.


Ancient grains are among the oldest of our foods, and with the rise in celiac disease and our increasing interest in healthier eating, they are now part of our dietary lexicon.

Of the ancient grains we hear a lot about these days, some are not grains at all, as John Michaelides pointed out in this magazine in March 2005. Grains, also known as cereals, are seeds of grasses. Others are simply seeds.

Let’s set aside the marvel of how a simple kernel stuck in the ground yields a plant with innumerable more, as if the Earth is saying, if you give me just a few and I’ll give you millions more.

Instead, let’s draw a timeline of what we’ll inclusively call grain seeds ad connect the dots to today’s breads.

Let’s start in 17,000 BC, when emmer grain first appeared and later became a dietary staple for the Roman legions. Fast-forward to the 20th century, when higher-yield varieties became more popular, and emmer wheat all but disappeared, except in Europe and Ethiopia. Similarly, Einkorn grain appeared in 16,000 BC and never made it to our modern day, requiring us to make do with Darwin’s best, the survivors.

It would be another 6,000 years before the first appearance of bread, and another 2,000 years for basic wheat.

Then came spelt, at the same time as wine, in 6000 BC. Spelt was a European staple from the Bronze Age to medieval times. During the Iron Age it thrived in Germany and Switzerland. From 500 BC, it was widely consumed in southern Britain. Spelt is commonly used in making matzo.

Yeast breads appeared 2,000 years after spelt. Barley was first used in 3000 BC and oats 2,000 years after that.

Teff originated between 4000 and 1000 BC, and is a species of lovegrass, which is romantic from the get-go. Teff is derived from the Amharic word for “lost,” because the grains are so small that, if dropped, they’d be impossible to find. They’re also extremely prodigious. The smallest amount is enough to plant a field.

Teff flour is used to make injera, the African flatbread made from a batter poured onto a hot, flat, round metal surface, then covered with a lid to steam. Injera is both plate and eating utensil disguised as bread. Foods are served on it and torn pieces of it are used to sop up meats, vegetables and all their related sauces.

Kamut is a trademarked name for Khorasan wheat, a relative of spelt. It’s often referred to as “King Tut’s wheat,” which puts it in the New Kingdom, between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, but the story that it was found in the emperor’s tomb has been debunked scientifically and remains a myth.

Finally, there’s chia, a seed that is currently being grouped in with the ancient grains. If you found yourself thinking, “Chia Pet,” you’ve nailed it. These are indeed the seeds used to grow those kitschy gifts people are still giving
as gags.

Maybe if we want to take these seeds seriously, as we have with ancient grains in general – because their nutritional wallop is astounding – we might refer to chia by its other name, Salvia hispanica, a plant of Aztec origins, often called “Indian Running Food,” because of its power as an energy source.

The Aztecs were said to be able to subsist on these seeds alone throughout their conquests. As little as a teaspoon was enough for a 24-hour march. One tale tells of how chia was used in hunting and could allow a hunter to run after a deer until it fell from exhaustion. Chia is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has more antioxidants than berries. Amazingly, only 31/2 ounces of chia has the same amount of iron as five cups of raw spinach.

It’s no wonder, then, that ancient grains and seeds are the new superfoods. How romantic it is to think of them enduring millennia to make it into our breads today. / BJ

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