Spelt wheat is an ancient wheat (grain) with a rich history and a complex genetic background that makes it stand out in the world of cultivated wheats. Here's a deep dive into the world of spelt, from its genetic makeup to its current cultivation and consumption trends.
Image Credits: Raimondo Cubadda, Emanuele Marconi
THE GENETIC PUZZLE OF SPELT
Spelt wheat falls under the category of hulled wheats. These grains are "clothed" in a tough outer shell that doesn't come off during harvesting. This is quite different from the "naked" wheats most of us are familiar with today. Spelt is a hexaploid wheat, meaning it has six sets of chromosomes (42 in total), a genetic feature that gives it both robustness in the field and a range of nutritional benefits.
Interestingly, spelt is a result of a natural hybridization that occurred about 8,000 years ago. It's believed that farmers in the Caspian region crossed a wild grass, Aegilops tauschii, with a domesticated wheat, emmer, giving rise to this new, hearty grain. However, unlike its wheat cousins, einkorn and emmer, spelt doesn't have a wild ancestor that's also hexaploid.
A STORIED PAST: THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SPELT
Spelt's journey through time is fascinating. Archaeological findings place the earliest known spelt in the Caucasus region and northern Iraq around the fifth millennium BC. It wasn't until the Neolithic period that spelt began to leave a more substantial mark on Europe. By the Bronze Age, it had become widespread across northern Europe and, during the Iron Age, even replaced emmer wheat in parts of Germany, Switzerland, and Britain. However, with the advent of the first millennium AD, the tide turned for spelt as it was largely replaced by free-threshing wheat varieties across Europe.
MODERN-DAY SPELT:FROM FIELD TO TABLE
Today, there's been a resurgence of interest in spelt, especially within the health food market. This ancient grain isn't just for bread anymore; it's used in soups, cakes, biscuits, and even pasta. Its cultivation is particularly suited to less fertile soils, like those in northern Ohio in the USA, where it thrives with lower rainfall levels.
THE SCIENCE OF SPELT
When it comes to nutrition, spelt is quite variable. Its protein content can range from around 9.85% to 19.2%, influenced by both genetics and the environment. The amino acid composition of spelt is similar to that of common wheat, with a low lysine content but high levels of proline and glutamic acid.
Interestingly, spelt has a higher gluten content than some other wheats, but the quality of this gluten is different. Spelt gluten is rich in gliadins, which makes the dough sticky and less elastic. This can make spelt bread denser and spelt dough trickier to work with. And for those with celiac disease, it's important to note that spelt contains gluten proteins harmful to individuals with this condition.
SPELT IN THE KITCHEN
Baking with spelt is an art. The flour is known for making doughs that are softer and more extensible, requiring shorter baking times and lower temperatures. This unique characteristic comes from the distinct macrostructure of spelt starch, which differs from that of common wheat.
The water absorption rate of spelt is also noteworthy. It absorbs less water than common bread wheat, which influences the dough's mixing and the final bread's volume and texture. Moreover, the higher proportion of germ in spelt grains adds to its nutritional profile, which is rich in phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium, niacin, and vitamin E.
A GRAIN FOR THE FUTURE
The rising popularity of spelt wheat in the production of environmentally friendly, nutritious foods is driving research into its chemical, functional, and nutritional properties. This research is not only enhancing our understanding of spelt but also paving the way for its innovative use in various food products.
In conclusion, spelt wheat, with its rich history, unique genetic makeup, and versatile culinary applications, offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient grains. Its continued relevance in modern agriculture and cuisine is a testament to its enduring qualities and the potential it holds for future food innovations.
THREE ONE FARMS IS SOWING SPELT IN PUNJAB, INDIA FOR THE FIRST TIME AS A PART OF ITS REVIVAL PROGRAMME 2023-24.