You could say wheat is the reason I’m writing this today. Because of wheat, my ancestors came to farm in Western Canada, as did most of the settlers on the great plains.
By 1906, one year after it became a province, Saskatchewan was calling itself the Breadbasket of the World. In 1928, Canada produced close to 40 per cent of the world’s wheat supply.
Before packing up and moving to Canada, my forefathers were wheat farmers in Russia, near the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine. Wheat was grown in Ukraine at least 2,500 years ago when it was a breadbasket of ancient Greece. The north shore of the Black Sea is dotted with the ruins of Greek colonies established for the procurement and shipping of wheat.
Like my ancestors, I grew up surrounded by wheat fields, albeit on a new continent, yet I knew nothing of the ancestry of this illustrious grain. So, here’s a quick genealogy of wheat: wild wheat called einkorn crossed with goatgrass to create a hybrid wheat called emmer. This happened in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq and Syria.
Over time, as farmers grew emmer century after century, new varieties evolved such as durum, Polish and Khorasan (also known today as kamut). They are descendants on one side of the wheat family tree. At some point, emmer crossed with another goatgrass to create the other side of the family tree — bread wheat.
The origin of spelt is a bit foggy; some think it’s a hybrid of emmer and goatgrass (a precursor to bread wheat) and some think it’s a descendant of emmer and bread wheat. Either way, spelt and bread wheat are close cousins.
While exact dates are sketchy, it is generally accepted that farmers began cultivating einkorn and emmer in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. By the time the Greeks settled on the Black Sea, bread wheat was the famous member of the family. It helped fund the monuments of the pharaohs and fed the powerhouse of ancient Rome.
And, almost 2,000 years later, it was the wheat that settled the plains of Western Canada. Today, bread wheat accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s wheat crop, while durum is about five per cent. Einkorn and emmer (also known in Italian as farro) are still grown in small quantities around the world.
I often see spelt, farro and kamut referred to as “ancient grains” as if they are special cases, but no matter how ancient, they are all wheat.
As you might guess, I am fascinated by the story of wheat, so much so that next month I’m heading to Greece, Turkey and Ukraine to dig into the cultural, political and edible history of wheat. Someday, I hope to write a book on the matter. It seems like a natural follow to my first two books: Prairie Feast, a culinary journey into the agricultural heartland of Canada, and Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens, a look at Saskatchewan’s early history through the lens of food and the recipes that fuelled the pioneer dream.
When Grainews editor Leeann Minogue asked me to write a regular food column for this paper, I jumped at the opportunity. Who better to appreciate the fruits of this land than the farmers who put their hearts and souls into the venture?
So, let’s start with a recipe for wheat. Whether you use spelt, farro, kamut or wheat from your own granary, it’s a healthy tribute to this ancient grain.
- 1 cup wheat seeds (also called wheat berries)
- 1/3 cup dried Prairie cherries OR cranberries
- 3 tbsp. vegetable OR olive oil
- 2 cups kale, chopped
- 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
- 1 apple, diced
- 3 spring onions, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- Salt to taste
Spread wheat on baking sheet and toast in 375 F oven for 10 minutes, until brown and fragrant. Tip wheat into pot, cover with plenty of water, add a dash of salt and boil until soft, about 1 hour. Near the end of cooking, add dried cherries or cranberries and cook a few minutes to plump them. Drain wheat and, while still warm, stir in vegetable or olive oil. Cool. Before serving, add kale and mix vigorously until the kale is tender. Stir in the remaining ingredients.