Spelt is an ancient grain found in northern Europe cuisine. Related to wheat, it is popular in organic farming and as an alternative to wheat flour.
Also known as: Spelz, Fesen, Vesen, Schwabenkorn
History and Origins
Precursors of the spell may have been "Einkorn" and/or emmer, which were early, domesticated, wheat relatives. One theory is that emmer hybridized with wild goatgrass in the Near East about 8000 years ago to become spelt.
Spelt called "Dinkel" in German and Triticum aestivum subs. spelt in binomial nomenclature has been found in archaeological sites in Germany and Switzerland dating back to 1700 B.C.E when people started farming. It was a good crop to grow on poor soils and in adverse weather, being resistant to many common fungi and other plant diseases.
Spelt may be called farro, although emmer is considered the true farro. Sometimes "Einkorn" is also called farro.
Spelt was grown throughout the Middle Ages and was an important trading commodity. Several towns were named for it, including Dinkelsbühl and Dinkelscherben in Bavaria, both of which have a coat of arms with three ears of spelt.
Due to the threat of poor harvests, a tradition of harvesting some of the unripe seeds early and kiln drying them for emergency rations became common and this grain is called "Grünkern." This seed type is not made into a flour, but rather is cooked into soup or gruel or made into flat, "Grünkernküchlein" or "Brat line" (garden burgers or vegetarian patties). It tastes a little sweeter than fully ripe spelt, because the sugars have not yet been converted into starch (like corn on the cob), and also a little smoky, from the beechwood smoke used to dry it.
The Hildegard Medizin
Spelt is part of the "Hildegard Medizin" movement, German followers of the tenants of St. Hildegard's herbal medicine, nutrition and cleansing as well as charm stone therapy.
Here is a quote from her book, Physica, printed in 1533 C.E.: "Spelt is the best grain, and it is warm, fatty and strong, and it is milder than all other sorts of grain, and, when eaten, it corrects body and blood and creates good humor and joy in the human mind."
Spelt fell out of favor in the 20th century, due to its lower yields (than wheat) and the fact that an extra milling step is required to free the husk or hull from the seed. This also makes it more expensive. It has made a small comeback in organic food circles because less fertilizer is needed and in many cases, less fungicide.
Uses Throughout History
Spelt flour makes a soft loaf of bread and can be a bit finicky to work with because it is easy to over knead. Sometimes a bit of ascorbic acid is added to the dough for better handling. Other times, a preferment or spelt sourdough is used to the same effect. Spelt bread and baked goods dry out quickly and become hard.
Many people feel that spelt bread is easier to digest than wheat and that people with mild wheat intolerance can eat spelt. This has not been scientifically proven. Spelt does contain gluten and is unsuitable for people with celiac disease.
Spelt has been used to brew beer, usually in the warm, top-fermenting wheat beer style. Several breweries in Germany and Austria make "Dinkelbier."
The roasted spell has also been used to brew a grain coffee substitute called "Dinkelkaffee."
At this time, spelt is grown in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, as well as other European countries. In the U.S., it is grown in Ohio and throughout the grain belt, in much lower acreage than Europe.