Emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and spelt (Triticum spelta) are both ancient (or ‘heirloom,’ if you prefer) ancestors or relatives of common wheat (Triticum aestivum) that are currently in the spotlight again for their supposed advantages (or simply differences, if you prefer) over the modern form of the grain. Most general readers could be forgiven for thinking that they have relatively recently been rediscovered. The truth is, that in some regions of the world, they never lost their importance.
Spelt was certainly being grown in the USA, in Virginia, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as a short piece in the New England Farmer, in 1835 shows:
Spelt (Triticum spelta.)
This grain is much used for bread, in Germany, and is the frumentacious tribute which the ancient Romans exacted from the People of the Country, while it formed a part of the Roman Empire. It is considerably cultivated by the German Farmers in Pennslvania. Its product is about the same as that of wheat, but the flour made from it is of a yellower color; and therefore not so valuable in the market, though perhaps equally good for common family use. The grain is to be boiled before grinding; and, as the skin of it is very thin, it is very productive in flour. … It is usually sown in Pennsylvania about the 20th of September….
A much longer article on the cultivation of spelt appeared in the Commissioner of Patents Annual Report in 1848; the following is a brief extract:
Spelt.—Dinkel or spelt, as the Germans call this kind of wheat, has been more extensively planted at earlier periods in Germany, than at present; it is one of the oldest kinds of grain which seems to have been known to the Egyptians. It is principally cultivated on the upper Rhine, in Franconia, Wurtemberg, Baden and Switzerland: there are two kinds used, one with a smooth kernel, the other a rough one; the ears like the wheat, have beard or are without it. Schwertz thinks, that wheat or spelt, without a beard, when sown upon a poor field badly prepared, have ears with beard, and vice versa. The red spelt is considered the best kind.
……. The flour from spelt is considered finer and whiter than that from wheat, and it is used by confectioners; it goes further in cooking than wheat flour, but bread from spelt flour is of a rather drier nature than wheat bread.
Our old friend Alexis Soyer provides an opinion (apparently from Auguste Parmentier) on the origin of spelt in his book The Pantropheon: Or, History of Food and Its Preparation: from the Earliest Ages of the World, (1853)
The botanist Michaux has discovered in Persia, on a mountain four days' journey from Hamadan, the place where wheat (a species known as spelt, from the Latin spelta) is indigenous to the soil, from which we may presume that wheat has its origin in that country, or some part of Asia not far from Persia. This grain was more cultivated formerly than it is now; nevertheless, it is still gathered in Italy, Switzerland, Alsace, in the Limousin and in Picardy, to make bread, with spelt, a greater quantity of leaven, and, above all, a little salt. This bread is white, light, savoury, and keeps moist for several days.—Parmentier.
By 1940, the United States Department of Agriculture, in Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1429, summarized the current status of both emmer and spelt in the country, and noted that both were primarily used for animal fodder at that time:
Emmer was introduced into this country from Russia over 50 years ago … The States leading in the production of emmer are South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Colorado. About 344,000 acres of emmer and spelt (mostly emmer) were grown in 1929.
… Nearly all of the emmer and spelt grown in the United States is fed to livestock.
… In Europe, emmer and spelt are often used in making food products. Sometimes they are dehulled and ground into a meal which is cooked for porridge. Some emmer is being milled into an uncooked breakfast food in this country. In Germany spelt is sometimes harvested before it is ripe, and the dried immature kernels, called grünkorn, are used in sous, porridge, etc.
Flour from emmer and spelt produces an undesirable, dark, heavy bread; when flour is made, it is used mostly in mixtures with wheat flour. These crops are not suitable for the manufacture of bread-making flour in this country.
Historical recipes for emmer and wheat are not present in large numbers in old cookery books, but I do have one for you today, from Ancient Rome. It appears in De Agricultura (On Farming or On Agriculture), written by Cato the Elder in about 160 BCE, and is for a type of porridge made from ‘groats’ that likely refers to emmer. The following recipe is from the Loeb Classical Library edition of the work, published in 1934, the English translation being by W. D. Hooper and H. B. Ash.
Pultem Punicam sic coquito. Libram alicae in aquam indito, facito uti bene madeat. Id infundito in alveum purum, eo casei recentis P. III, mellis P. S, ovum unum, omnia una permisceto bene. Ita insipito in aulam nova.
Recipe for Punic porridge: Soak a pound of groats in water until it is quite soft. Pour it into a clean bowl, add 3 pounds of fresh cheese [ricotta], ½ pound of honey, and 1 egg, and mix the whole thoroughly; turn into a new pot.