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THE HISTORY OF SPELT

Twelve millennia ago hunter-gatherers began turning to farming to stabilize their food supply. The first agrarian revolution produced arguably the most crucial transformation yet in human society, the first footstep on the ceaseless path to civilization. Spelt lies at the heart of this change.alt

Spelt is a primitive form of wheat, developed when goat grass (aegilips squarrosa) was cross pollinated with emmer wheat (triticum dicoccoides) in the so called Fertile Crescent about 9000 years ago.

From its beginning in the cradle of civilization we can follow spelt’s popularity through Old Testament references and archaeological surveys of Stone Age settlements.

In Britain, Iron Age man liked spelt so much it was adopted as the main crop between 2000 BC and the beginning of the Bronze Age. Carbonised remains of bannock shaped loaves have been found on the Iron Age site of Glastonbury, re-inforcing spelts close relationship to Sharpham Park today.  Spelt and its rival emmer wheat were both comparable grains historically; they both thrive in damp conditions, resist diseases and pests and demand the same arduous processing techniques to remove the tough outer husk. With no scientific reason for the swing to spelt, it seems likely that this was because it tasted good and made better bread then emmer.

Certainly the Romans thought so, dubbing spelt the ‘marching grain’. By the time they conquered Britain it was already our national favourite.

Despite people’s praise of spelt throughout history, from sources as diverse as German mystics and British herbalists, it was largely bypassed during the nineteenth century as mass farming techniques developed. It proved lower yielding than modern wheat varieties and the very attribute that helps to protect the crop against disease (a close-fitting husk around the grain) made it difficult to thresh. Wheat, easily mechanized although less resistant to disease, became the norm. Spelt had all but disappeared by the mid twentieth century.

Thankfully this has left spelt varieties, like Frankenkorn, the type grown by Sharpham Park, ready to be rediscovered for its taste and abundant health properties in the twenty first century.




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