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Ancent-Grains-art - 6/29/01


"Looking into Ancient Grains" by Mistress Christianna MacGrain, OP, OL, Meridies.


NOTE: See also the files: grains-msg, flour-msg, porridges-msg, bread-msg, leavening-msg, yeasts-msg, breadmaking-msg, brd-mk-flat-msg, rice-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

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                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Looking into Ancient Grains

by Mistress Christianna MacGrain


      We have all heard phrases "The Staff of Life" and "Man cannot live by bread alone", but what significance to grains really have in our lives?  In America, we eat wheat as our primary grain crop, with corn and rice coming in as close runners-up.  However, as far as agricultural diversity, that's about as far as we go.  There are several other grains out there that we might eat, including barley, rye, and oats, but how many times have you branched out and tried something else, like a nice quinoa casserole, a spelt bread, amaranth crackers, or even t'ef pancakes?  What are these, you say?  Why, they are among a growing number of foods we are coming to know as Ancient Grains.  Most of these have been staples in their area of origin for centuries, and the American public is just now beginning to see the value of adding some of these to our diets.  


      Why add additional grain varieties to your normal intake of wheat bread and oatmeal?  There are several good reasons.  Each grain has its own nutritional "picture".  When using a variety of grains you increase your chance of obtaining a more well rounded assortment of nutrients and energy balance from the grains.  The more varied your diet, the more complete nutritional support you are giving your body.  You can also reduce your chances of grain-related allergies.  Allergies may be triggered by an overload of the offending food.  One of the most common food allergies in this country is wheat, perhaps because we eat so much of it. From an ecological perspective, much of the world's soil is not well-adapted to wheat which is by far the world's biggest crop grown.  Learning to enjoy grains that grow easily where wheat does not, is a step toward practicing more sustainable farming and more prudent economics.  Not to mention, adding a variety of grains to your diet allows you to enjoy more tastes, textures, and variations in preparing food.  


      The earliest cultivated wheats were far different from the modern hybrid wheat grown today.  Every kernel upon the stalk of ancient wheat matured thickly-wrapped in heavy, protective cloak-like husks.  Science calls these earliest cultivated wheats "covered" or "husked".  Free-threshing wheats with huskless, naked kernels arose later, as offspring from these ancient rustic covered wheats.  One of these ancient wheats is Spelt Wheat, or Triticum Spelta.  Archaeologists and plant geneticists have not yet been able to fully determine the exact origins of spelt. It became the Staff of Life for early Europe, where the Anglo Saxons named the grain giving it roots in their language of Old English.  With the age of mechanical milling machines, however, spelt was used less and less, considered old-fashioned, and out-of-date with its long straw and thick, heavy husks, combined with lower yields compared to wheats beginning to thrive from modernized plant breeding programs.  A few farms high up in the Alps were the only places where spelt production continued.

      Wheat is the world's most important carbohydrate crop and nourishes more people than any other food source.  According to scientists, spelt wheat is parent and ancestor to the modernized bread wheat plants we have today.  Spelt wheat's rediscovery is one of the most exciting events of the modern health and nutrition renaissance, and during turn-of-the-century Europe, spelt wheat was a famous baking wheat with an outstanding reputation for making the best breads with deep aroma, hearty flavor, and a nutty taste. The kernel components allow wheat to be made into a dough that rises and produces light fluffy baked goods are called "gluten proteins".  Bread wheat is so-called because it is rich in gluten proteins. Modern bread wheat received its gluten proteins from its spelt wheat parentage. Old folk varieties of wheat like Spelt are great storage reservoirs of innumerable protein variations, which may contribute valuable as-yet-undiscovered nutritional advantages.  Spelt yields a higher protein and fiber content than common wheat, and the gluten is highly water-soluble, making it easier to digest for people with some wheat allergies.  When baking with spelt, keep in mind the fact that it does not absorb quite as much liquid as regular wheat, so either lower your liquid volume or add additional spelt to absorb the same amount of liquid (about 25% more, according to one of Sev's bakers).  For general cooking information, 1 cup of spelt berries cooked in 3-4 cups of water for 40 minutes will yield roughly 2 cups of cooked grain.


      But what about other grains, not related to wheat?  For these, we look to the longest mountain chain in the world, the Cordillera de los Andes.   One of the most ancient crops domesticated in the Americas is grown there, called Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah).  The botanical name of this crop is Chenopodium Quinoa.   Quinoa means "the mother" in the language of the Quechua Indans, one of two primary Andean languages of the South American high plains. Among all of the races of grain chenopods, the best known and most abundantly grown is quinoa. On the Andean altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, above 10,000 feet elevation, quinoa is the queen of the edible seed crops.  Grown for centuries in the mountain valleys and on the lofty semi-arid Andean plateau, the crop has served as a high-altitude staple for countless generations of Aymara and Quechua Andeans; descendents of the Inca empire.  


      To the Andeans, quinoa has been an energy resource supporting vigorous work in the thin air and constant foot travel, often across long distances.  Because of its nutritional profile and centuries-long record of providing energy and sustaining life at high altitudes, quinoa has been labeled a 'supergrain'.  The potential of this grain for health and well-being fired the imagination of America's far-seeing plant-breeding genius Luther Burbank.  Over one hundred years ago in the 1880's, convinced of its future as a lifestyle choice, Burbank championed the grain, making repeated attempts to introduce quinoa to the American public, calling it "a new breakfast food, a forgotten cereal of the ancient Aztecs."  Quinoa grain contains an excellent balance of body-building amino acids.  Essential sulfur-bearing amino acids cystine and methionine are biologically available, along with lysine, a critical nutrient missing from such common cereals such as corn, rice, and wheat.  Protein levels are high and the grain contains vitamin C and the B complex of thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.  Quinoa is fast-cooking and easy to prepare.  It has a delightful density and texture, neither sticky or heavy, but light and fluffy.  Quinoa flour is the lightest, most pillowy of all baking flours and offers a valuable non-allergenic option for individuals intolerant to wheat gluten.  The flour can be used to create satisfying cookies, pancakes, and waffles, without the addition of any other grain. Another outstanding feature is the grain's easy digestibility.  Throughout the Andean altiplano it is prepared whole like rice, or hand-milled into flour for home-baked biscuits and Andean flatbreads. Quinoa seeds are flat, round, and small, with a disc-like shape.  Traveling around the outside edge of the disc is a circular hoop, like the band on a barrel.  When whole quinoa grains are cooked, the soft inside melts and the circular hoop separates off.  These tiny curved crescents are sprinkled throughout each spoonful, each one resembling a tiny letter "C" and adding a crunchy texture amidst the surrounding melted grains.  Freshly harvested from the plant, each quinoa seed is thickly coated with a glossy varnish of dry, bitter, soap-like substances called saponins.  These natural soap compounds protect the seed from predation by birds and insects.  Most of these bitter saponins have been removed from the grain before it is sold to consumers, but some traces always remain.  Fortunately, these quinoa seedcoat saponins are easily dissolved in cold water rinses, usually 4-5 rinses or until the sudsy froth stops forming when fresh water is run over the uncooked grain. Even though it is a bit more expensive than some other grains, quinoa will expand more than the usual 2 - 1 ratio of more common grains.  When cooking, use about 2 cups of water to one cup of quinoa, cook for 15-20 minutes, and this will yield 3- 4 cups of grain.

      Another ancient grain worth looking at is Amaranth (Amaranthus).  The Amaranthus genus or plant family is comprised of about 60 species which are distributed world-wide.  In India, old Sanskrit records give 4 recorded names for the grain.  In China, grain amaranth has been called "the thousand-ear cereal".  In Mexico, its grains comprise the alegria ("happiness; joy") confection popularly sold on the street corners.  Spanish conquerors called it "Inca Wheat".  In the north-east of Argentina, the crop is called quinua del valle ("quinoa of the valley"), a reference to the fact that quinoa and amaranth appear very similar in looks.  Used among the lost civilizations of South America, there is no doubt that grain amaranth is one of the most ancient crops domesticated in the Americas.  But, throughout the centuries and continuing up to the present day, the maximum distribution and cultivation of the grain amaranth crop is in and among the Himalayan mountain chain of Asia, where it is an ancient established crop.  In places such as Sikkim, Darjeeling, Assam, Bhutan, Nepal, and Kashmir, nearly 3000 individual strains of the crop have been collected by recent scientific expeditions. Domesticated amaranth eventually distinguished itself into three and later four groups: the Leaf or Vegetable group; the Dye group; and the Grain group; with a fourth group, the Ornamental or Horticultural group being developed later.  The Leaf group is similar to spinach and chard, and is very high in dietary calcium and iron. The leaf tissues are rich in protein, beta-carotene, and other vitamins and minerals.  In addition, the leaf amaranths are able to grow and thrive in hot weather, and are considered the only summer leafy vegetable with a dependable yield in hot and arid conditions.  The Dye group is spectacular with bright pigmentation in shades of red, green, gold, orange, yellow, purple, and pink. The native Hopi tribe in the Southwestern US uses it to achieve brilliant reds in their ceremonial corn wafer bread.  The coloring agent in amaranth is similar to that in beets.  The Ornamental amaranth was grown by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and the dried flower heads could be seen in Colonial winter bouquets.


      Grain amaranth is very nutritious.  It offers a total protein digestibility of about 90% and contains a near-perfect balance of nutritionally essential amino acids.  For these reasons the grain's biological value ranks very high among plant proteins. Compared to common cereals, the grain has a superior phosphorous and iron content and is high in calcium and zinc.  100 grams of grain (about 3.5 ounces) contains more calcium than a glass of milk.  Amaranth starch granules are among the smallest ever recorded, with an average diameter of one micron.  The grain is high in lysine and thus complements the common cereals whose lysine content is low.  Amaranth grain has a pleasing taste and smell and a delicate nutty sweetness that makes the grain as versatile as it is nutritious.  Amaranth grain can often be tolerated by individuals intolerant to wheat gluten, even though it does contain traces of gluten.  The grains can be boiled, toasted and popped, flaked, or ground into a flour.  The grains cook into delicious porridge and gruel by simply boiling in water.  As a flour, amaranth grain provides baked goods with a desirable moisture and density.  Try one of the Sev deli's blue corn and amaranth muffins some time, and enjoy the sweet, dense texture.  For cooking as a cereal, one cup of dry grain amaranth to 2.5 - 3 cups of water, cooked for 20-25 minutes, will yield 2.5 cups of cooked grain.

      The last grain in our retrospective of ancient grain varieties is the Ethiopian t'ef.  The botanical name of t'ef is Eragrostis tef.   The genus name Eragrostis  is a blend of the Greek words eros ("love") and agrostis ("grass").  Together, they produce the genus' common name of Lovegrass.  Two theories prevail about the origin of the word t'ef.  One holds that the word originated from the native Ethiopian Amharic word 'teffa', which means "lost": if one grain is dropped, it is difficult to find and becomes lost.  The other theory holds that the word was derived from the Arabic word 'tahf' : the name for a closely related wild grass whose grain was collected and used by early Semitic peoples in South Arabia in times of food scarcity.  T'ef  and its Eragrostis relatives are also used as ornamentals.  To Ethiopians, however, t'ef is a highly prized cereal crop, the most important of all the cereals produced in that country.  Tiny t'ef is the nutritional cornerstone of the Ethiopian nation, providing nearly two-thirds of their protein requirements.  Legends related to the crop extend back to 100 BC, but t'ef cultivation is thought to be very much older than that.  Eragrostis tef is a fine-bladed cereal grass varying from short to tall, whose structure of grain-bearing panicles vary from compact and narrow to spreading and loose in form.  More than 2,000 strains of this important cereal grass have been collected within Ethiopia.  The seeds of t'ef are very small; five of them can easily fit on the head of a pin.  Seed color varies from ivory to dark reddish brown.   The fine-stemmed straw obtained from the crop is an excellent fodder much preferred by the farmer's working oxen over straw from other cereals.  Among all the cereal crops, t'ef requires special care and skill to grow.  The young seedling plants are extremely fragile and delicate.  Not until t'ef is nearly full-grown can it compete successfully with weeds; before then it can easily be suffocated by them.  Barley, maize, grain sorghum, and wheat are easier to cultivate and harvest than t'ef, but over thousands of years t'ef has held its status as Ethiopia's premier edible seed crop by virtue of its drought-tolerant abilities.  Ethiopia's climate has a single rainy season whose rainfall is erratic and unpredictable.  Called "a reliable cereal for an unreliable climate", t'ef is a low-risk crop, upon which Ethiopia's farmers have been able to depend to produce grain in a bad season as well as in a good one. Commercial t'ef production was started in the United States by American entrepreneurs Wayne and Elizabeth Carlson, who wanted to supply American Ethiopians with their beloved bread grain.  Nutritionally, t'ef is a powerhouse.  It is rich in carbohydrate energy, protein and minerals.  It is a remarkable source of minerals, with a general mineral content higher than many other grains.  Phosphorus, magnesium, boron, copper, calcium, zinc, and manganese are contained in the kernels.  The iron content of t'ef is about two to three times greater than that of wheat, barley, or grain sorghum.  T'ef is also a good source of vitamins, with thiamin, riboflavin,  and niacin contained within the kernels.

      In Ethiopia, t'ef is consumed as a soup and porridge and it is brewed into a native beer.  The greatest use of t'ef however, is in the making of the famous Ethiopian bread, called enjera.  Enjera is the Amharic name for the giant Ethiopian pancake, two feet in diameter, which is the beloved food among all the peoples of the country and is said to comprise 92% of the rural diet.  The enjera is a porous, soft, very thin crepe with a slightly sour flavor.  This unique bread is THE Ethiopian daily staple food, served with all kinds of dishes on any occasion, eaten with the fingers and usually served at room temperature.  According to experts, in food shortage circumstances a daily intake of one t'ef enjera supplies enough essential amino acids to sustain life without any other protein source, while two enjera are sufficient to ensure good health under subsistence circumstances.  To prepare enjera, t'ef flour is fermented for 1-2 days by a complex of microorganisms including bacteria, yeasts, and molds.  The fermented batter is poured in a thin layer on a slightly concave clay griddle of approximately 30" in diameter, over a very hot fire.  The enjera is covered with a conical lid cover and the bread is allowed to steam-bake for 2-3 minutes.  Bubbles of gas liberated by the heat are trapped in the dough during the cooking process.  These air spaces produce an effect which is much preferred, becoming the "eyes" of the enjera and are thought to bestow upon the pancake its inviting look.  For dining, one enjera is placed on the serving table to serve as a platter onto which the food is placed.  Other enjera are rolled or folded and placed around the edge of the "platter".  The diners seat themselves in a semi-circle around a circular serving table and use pieces of the enjera to scoop up portions of the hot, spicy centerpiece stew called wot containing vegetables or legumes and no meat that is companion to the enjera.  Since t'ef contains no gluten, it is not suitable for the making of leavened loaf breads, but it offers a delicious and full-flavored alternative to wheat in waffles, cakes, cookies, muffins, quick breads, and dessert baked goods.  T'ef is the new gourmet secret ingredient in the creation of flavor-rich sauces, gravies, and gels.


      So, try some new and different grains in your diet, and see what wonderful new taste sensations you can come up with.

      For consumer information about membership in an heirloom-grain conservation organization, send one dollar and a long, self-addressed, stamped envelope to:

The KUSA Society, P.O. Box 761, Ojai, CA 93024.




      Arrowhead Mills pamphlets, The Life Story of Spelt; Quinoa; Amaranth; and T'ef


      Twin Cities Natural Food Co-Ops, "Natural Foods Training Course" and

Grains pamphlet



Copyright 2001 by Christine Seelye-King. 1039 E. Confederate Ave., Atlanta, GA 30316 <kingstaste at mindspring.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org