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Spelt

I ran across a wonderful story today while reading up on the Carolingian economy (salt, grain, and wool!). Since I don't know what else I can use it for anytime soon, here you are:

In the early Middle Ages, in northern Europe, spelt was one of the primary grains for human diets. In the ninth century in what is today Belgium, spelt comprised between sixty and eighty percent of grain production. This staple grain was milled into flour and made into bread. (Hugh of St. Victor tells us there are two types of food: bread, and the stuff you eat with bread.)

The watermill was developed sometime around the first or second century C.E. It spready slowly, although plenty of classical historians argue that it didn't spread nearly as slowly as many medievalists would have you believe. Anyways, by the ninth century, watermills were increasingly well-ensconced as the way to grind grain, trumping the slower methods of grining by handmill or animal power.

Unlike its relative wheat, a "naked grain", spelt has extra protective layers. Those extra layers made it a bit fiddly to grind into grain, and it was processed inefficiently - inadequately - by the mechanically-powered mills. It was better processed by hand. Thus, by the tenth century, spelt production was falling rapidly - a major part of the early Medieval diet killed off by the watermill.

Comments

( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
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owlfish
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC)
It's a fad!

In 1976, one U.S. article called the grain "obscure". One company claims to have reintroduced it to the commercial market in 1987. I'm willing to believe this all reflects the U.S. market situation, but I suspect it doesn't say much about worldwide spelt farming frequencies.
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owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:31 am (UTC)
I'll see if my local grocery store carries something enspelted. I need to try it now!
owlfish
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:01 pm (UTC)
P.S. I've never knowingly eaten spelt. How was it?
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fjm
Nov. 11th, 2005 04:59 am (UTC)
Spelt contains gluten. Gluten free bread has changed a great deal in the seven years I've been eating it. I use an ersatz rye bread, and one of the commercial corn breads.
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aquitaineq
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC)
Not coming tommorow right?
owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:31 am (UTC)
Right. I'll email or call you when it's not quite so early (don't know when you get up) and we'll figure out next week.
forthright
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC)
Strangely enough, curtana just returned from the farmer's market an hour ago with a carrot loaf whose first ingredient is organic spelt flour.
doctor_mama
Nov. 11th, 2005 01:15 am (UTC)
Yes, spelt is hot these days. I am interested in alternative grains because my celiac father has been gluten-free for over 30 years. Spelt, however, is not an answer because it does contain gluten.

Please keep sharing stories like these. I am fascinated by unintended consequences.
fjm
Nov. 11th, 2005 05:00 am (UTC)
There are some decent commercial corn breads now, and you can make soda bread with buckwheat (which is gluten free).
doctor_mama
Nov. 11th, 2005 07:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, we have tons of gf recipes. My mother has become a real maven at baking with rice flour, tapioca flour, bean flours, potato flour...

She really relies on Bette Hagman's "Gluten-Free Gourment" series.
genibane
Nov. 11th, 2005 02:06 am (UTC)
It reminds me of Roman eating habits where a actual herb when extinct because it was consumed too much and it was raised on only one island. It was wierd because it was actually really nasty tasting, but it's juices were spread onto plates to make the food served upon it was so much tastier in comparison.
owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:29 am (UTC)
I wonder what herb that was. I'll have to have a look around and find out. Thanks for mentioning it!
oursin
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:34 am (UTC)
Silphium, I think - this is mentioned in Riddle's dreadful book on birth control and abortion through the ages because it was also used, he says, as an abortifacient. But I distrust that book very, very, much. However, he does probably give some sources for the information that could be checked.
owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 12:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Apparently, it tasted rather garlicky and is a close relative of asafoetida (not that I've tried that either). The book I've just looked it up in (Art, Culture, & Cuisine: Ancient & Medieval Gastronomy) errs on the side of calling it a "supposed contraceptive effect", and quite helpfully provides a photo of a 6th cent. B.C.E. Cyrenian coin with a picture of the plant on it.
oursin
Nov. 11th, 2005 12:44 pm (UTC)
Asafoetida in teeny amounts is a good thing, but v nasty in large. Prob same with silphium.
genibane
Nov. 11th, 2005 02:02 pm (UTC)
I read it in a book based on the living habits of the Romans, it was Jesse's, she would probably remember the title. It wasn't exactly a historical work, more like history for the plebian kind of book, but obviously well researched and fun to read.
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owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:29 am (UTC)
I approve of puns, and that was a fine one.
oursin
Nov. 11th, 2005 08:35 am (UTC)
I've used spelt flour - it doesn't taste that different from wholemeal, I find, and can be used in much the same way. The Doves Farm Spelt Flour packet had quite a nice recipe for 'Roman Bread' - I think this is somewhere in my bulging culinary scrapbook.
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owlfish
Nov. 11th, 2005 07:01 pm (UTC)
Adriaan Verhulst. The Carolingian Economy. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge, 2002.

I found it accessible and informative. I know not nearly enough about economic history in general, but what I do know about the period coincided well with what the book had to offer.
square_egg
Nov. 11th, 2005 06:12 pm (UTC)
I have slowly been getting into spelt as an alternative to wheat, which I am allergic to. I'm intrigued to learn that it was a northern European staple for centuries, and often wonder if my ancestry has had anything to do with what grains I can or cannot tolerate.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )