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Rediscovery of ancient grains

We often speak - and sometimes out of proportion - of ancient grains, but what are they and where do these grains come from, so appreciated in recent times?

In the 1950s, freeze-dried sachets or meal replacement pills were the symbol of the food of the future, a future in which technology would free us forever from the problem of growing and cooking and farms would be replaced by sterile laboratories. Today, food is all the more contemporary the more natural it is. Natural, genuine, authentic, these are the characteristics that an ingredient or dish must have to attract a modern consumer. So it opens up to a return to tradition, to abandoned jobs, to the recovery of marginal areas - such as those in the mountains - and to the detoxification of industrial food.

Words, however, have a weight and their indiscriminate use has consequences. What does natural mean? Nothing that is done by man is natural, let alone agriculture. It is not a theoretical question but concerns the relationship of trust with consumers, which is often tried to convince with medical, holistic and nostalgic arguments that are not well-founded, when it is good, false and dangerous when it is bad. To give a vision of how complex the concept of genuineness and traditionality is, let's start from the Rieti of 1800 and ancient grains.

Ancient grains: a fascinating story

From the second half of the nineteenth century, the variety of wheat Rieti began to spread and be appreciated throughout Italy, so that its price in 1879 was twice that of other wheat, for a genetic characteristic borrowed from the original selection environment. The Rieti Plain was born from the Roman reclamation of the third century BC Lake Velino and the area has remained marshy and wet until more recent interventions, then selection and improvement in field, the variety of wheat grown here has become extraordinarily resistant to wheat rust.

At the beginning of the 20th century the demand for Rieti wheat had led to speculation and fraud because it was not possible to increase the yield per hectare - and therefore the production - also because of the tendency to lose resistance to rust if grown outside the plain and to bedding. The term is explanatory in itself: the plant folds back to the ground, because of the wind or rain.

The agronomist and geneticist Nazareno Strampelli in 1903, can only begin to work on improving the characteristics of the grain and begins to cross the native variety with French varieties of Russian wheat (Noah), then with Dutch varieties crossed with English (Wilhelmina Tarwe), then with Japanese (Akakomugi), obtaining excellent results, such as the Ardito. Ardito was the wheat that allowed the fascist government to almost double the production of wheat in 10 years, without increasing the cultivated area. Strampelli is however best known for the wheat Senatore Cappelli - an Apulian variety of Tunisian durum wheat Jenah Rhetifah obtained around 1915 - returned to the headlines - along with others, including his brother Ardito - in recent years with the label of ancient wheat.

What are ancient grains?

To point out that, despite the efforts of improvised food gurus to convince people, there are no unmodified or original or natural varieties of wheat. The definitions of ancient grains are as varied as field flowers, but we can divide them into two large and opposing categories. In the first category, ancient grains are defined as the species of the genus Triticum that were consumed by the populations of antiquity and that therefore we could label as genetically ancient grains. In this group, the monocoque spelt, domesticated 10,000 years ago, is the oldest of all and is genetically much simpler - 14 chromosomes and lower baking characteristics - than the spelt that has replaced it in popularity since before the Romans and that is still widespread in Italian agriculture.
The best known definition, however, is the one that establishes the boundary between ancient and modern between the first and second world wars and therefore includes many different varieties, from those adapted to very particular climates and territories to those obtained with selections in the field. What this miscellany of different hard and soft fruits has in common is the fact that they have been replaced by contemporary varieties for their lower yields.
The classification is quite arbitrary, because genetic modifications have accumulated and been selected for millennia, and agronomists of the second half of the twentieth century have worked from existing varieties. Since the 1950s, the genetic improvement of wheat has certainly been accelerating rapidly, mainly with a view to increasing yields, and many people have wondered whether this progress has not brought about changes, especially as regards the content and quality of gluten. Some, but not all, ancient grains are gluten-free: amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and teff.

The characteristics of ancient grains

So what are the characteristics that make these ancient grains so special, beyond certain communication devices? These grains represent in fact a fundamental reserve of biodiversity, a resource to be exploited for territories that do not adapt to intensive cultivation and a great potential for the new generation of artisan bakers, interested in the taste and the different textures that these grains give to bread.

They are generally used to obtain whole or wholemeal flours, which give loaves with a crunchier crust, with better alveolation and which are usually lower and more durable, but this is mainly due to the type of grinding used - stone or cylinder.

Km zero is a definition that often confuses people, tomato puree would have difficulty reaching the 45th parallel north, in fact many chefs, intellectuals and theorists prefer to talk about respectful cooking and intelligent and sustainable supply. It is true that lemons and oranges cannot be grown in Milan, and imports here are necessary, but it is also true that preferring Australian amberjacks to those of the Mediterranean – which are tastier and less impactful - only for the price is not sustainable in the medium to long term and impoverishes the economic and social fabric.

Disintermediation, short supply chain, seasonality and a relationship of trust with the producers are the characteristics that bring consumers closer and fill the (relative) problem of the smaller variety of products compared to supermarkets. Excellence must be recognised and appreciated whatever its origin - food self-sufficiency is not conceivable, as like all radical closures it is neither a viable nor the desirable way - but attention to seasonality and the origin of the product must be a driver of choice as important as - and where possible more - the price.

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