Emmer



Emmer is the English word for the Latin far, and it is one of the oldest grains cultivated by mankind.  Wild emmer remnants have been found at archaeological sites in present day Israel, that date to 17,000 B.C.  Cultivated emmer (Triticum turgidum dicoccum) was the predominant grain used by civilizations throughout the Near East and North Africa from 10,000 B.C.  It began to be cultivated in Europe first in Greece, and then was adopted also by the Romans, who used it to make puls, a nutritious porridge that was the principal food that fed the legions  as the Romans expanded their empire.


Far is the root word to farina, which means “flour” in Italian, and the milled far was used to make a variety of breads.  Panis farreus (emmer bread) was a thin loaf broken and shared by a bride and groom that gave its name to the most formal of Roman weddings, the confarreatio.  Far was equally as important for religious observances as it was for food.  Far was used to make the mola salsa powder for sacrificial animals, but also offered to the Gods in the form of cakes, and as simple grains.  The religious observance of the Fornacalia, served an important practical purpose, as the sacred toasting of the grains was necessary to free them from their hard hulls. 


Emmer became crossed with a genetically similar grass, Aegylops squarrosa, and the result was Triticum aestivum, the wheat that is now commonly used for making bread and pastries.  Directly related to emmer is Triticum durum, modified though the process of cultivation and human selection, known as durum wheat, that is used primarily for making pastas.   Both Triticum asetivum and durum are free threshing, which means that the grains don’t have to have the hulls manually removed by slaves with mortars and pestles.  Upon the introduction of these less labor-intensive wheats, around 400 BC, emmer slowly began to be abandoned as a food source.  Nevertheless it remained the essential grain for religious ceremonies until the end of the Roman Empire.


During the Middle Ages emmer fell into disuse in Italy, and it was not until very recently that it has begun to be commercially cultivated.   When I first came to Sorano no one had ever heard of farro (derived from the latin far.)  The first person to introduce it to me was my friend Amparo, who served a delicious farro and borlotti bean stew at her local restaurant, the Taverna Etrusca.  Amparo asked me to translate her menu, and I was stumped when I came to the farro.  The translation in the various dictionaries I referred was “spelt,” so that is what she used on her English menu.  However, farro, as I have since learned, is in fact emmer.  Spelt (triticum speltum) is similar to emmer, but it is a larger grain, and it is neither as nutty or as firm when cooked as emmer.   Farro/emmer has now become a popular grain in Italy, and although I find that it is best in soups, it also makes very good, flavorful pasta, and can be used to make excellent full-grain breads and pastries.

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