How are grains grown in Sicily different from the same varieties grown in other parts of the world?
What are Sicilian ancient grains? What happened to them?
What are the properties of Sicilian ancient grains? How are they different from modern varieties?
What is the difference between Sicilian ancient grains and other ancient grains like spelt and kamut?
Are Sicilian ancient grains gluten-free?
What difference does stone-milling make?
What can I do with Sicilian ancient grains?
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The Mediterranean micro-climate in Sicily provides enough sun, warm temperatures and dry weather to naturally and effectively ward off mycotoxins that wheat crops are typically vulnerable to. As a result, there is no need for chemicals, such as Glyphosates, to keep the fungal infections away. The dependence on the climate also means that grains grown in Sicily follow the seasons rigorously – there is only one harvest per year. Grains are given time to grow throughout winter, flower in spring, mature appropriately and let the sun zap away any mycotoxins before they are harvested and stored in summer. In essence, grains grown in Sicily are naturally safe, healthy and happy grains.
Outside of the Mediterranean micro-climate, in climates with extremely cold temperatures and high humidity, man has to intervene with special treatments to prevent fungal growth and to ensure that wheat crops continue to mature, albeit artificially, even when it snows. The ability to orchestrate the “right conditions” for wheat to grow also allows profit-minded farmers to have guaranteed multiple harvests per year. However, we cannot guarantee the integrity of these grains.
Sicilian ancient grains are forgotten varieties that used to grace the fields of the island. Over the centuries, farmers watched their plants take on the qualities that the terrain and climate offered. Each year, they saved their best sheaves of wheat to plant the following year, gradually allowing each wheat variety to be the very best expression of the area. Along the coast, on the hills, in the mountains, on the plains…each wheat variety was a unique and natural adaptation to the area. You can read about how these ancient varieties were discovered and conserved here.
However, wheat consumption in Italy kept going up, and local production was just not keeping up with demand. In 1920s, at the peak of the Fascist regime, the Italian economy was crippled by an increasingly unsustainable trade deficit. Grains accounted for 50% of the deficit; over a third of the 7.5 million tonnes consumed annually was imported. Wheat cultivated in North America and East Europe were just more competitive in terms of price.
Anxious to achieve self-reliance in this staple of the Italian diet, dictator Benito Mussolini declared the battaglia del grano (Grain Battle) in the evening of 20 June 1925. Mussolini personally took command of the task, rehashing that there would be no increase to the land surface dedicated to grain cultivation. Instead, the yield per hectare had to go up. To do so, the three problems to tackle were: selection of grains, cultivation techniques, and price.
Several institutions were established to develop grains that would thrive in the fields. Coupled with advances in agricultural methods, Italy dramatically increased its average wheat yield per hectare by 313 thousand tonnes, rendering grain imports almost unnecessary. In 1931, the vittoria sul grano was announced. The battle was won!
From alleviating poverty to boosting Italy’s economy, the battaglia del grano remains one of the most significant contributions of the Fascist era. Some argue, however, that victory came at a cost. In the journey to autarky, many local grain varieties (we now refer to them as Sicilian ancient grains) were abandoned in favour of superior ones.
According to Ugo de Cillis, founding Director of the experimentation centre for grain cultivation in Sicily, the local, autochthonous grain varieties were “extremely exquisite in terms of physical properties, as well as from biological and cultural viewpoints.” After all, these local grains had adapted to the climate and countless variables in Sicily. These Sicilian ancient grains, as we now refer to them, had been cultivated for centuries by farmers in the Sicilian hinterland, with their unique sensitivity to grain quality. Their parameters for quality were determined by what their grains then meant for the consumer, ie. their loved ones and the local community.
Fast forward to Mussolini’s drive to increase wheat production during the battaglia del grano, where local grain varieties were given up in favour of specially developed ones. And fast forward 30 years later to the green revolution in North America, fronted by Norman Borlaug. Innovations in seed hybridisation, agricultural techniques, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides were accompanied by the development of rust-resistant wheat varieties that increased yield by 20% to 40%, semi-dwarf wheat varieties that could withstand strong winds and hold up huge loads of grains, and a technique known as “shuttle breeding” to speed up the breeding process by having two harvests per year in different climatic conditions.
While the green revolution achieved its aim of alleviating hunger in countries like India, China and Mexico, it also provoked a shift in diets as more and more people turn to wheat as a staple. The grain trade is probably as ancient as grains themselves, but till not too long ago, most wheat was cultivated for domestic consumption. However, given the high yield per unit area of revolutionised wheat varieties that thrived regardless of climate, wheat became widely cultivated as a cash crop.
Now in the global grain trading market, the terms of trade tend to be from the point of view of industry – not the consumer. As such, price is determined by supply and demand, as well as qualities that make a grain suitable for, well, big industries. This means high protein content, as high-protein grains withstand transformation and machinery use (milling, mixing, proofing, etc.) better than low-protein grains. To meet such criteria, many farmers seek to increase the protein content in their grains, by focussing on high yielding wheat varieties that respond well to methods such as nitrogen and sulfur fertilisation. Additives such as refined protein and gluten powder are also used to increase the “quality” of flour.
With these concepts in minds, we can proceed to describe Sicilian ancient grains and their qualities for the consumer (not big industries), as these grains belong to the time before wheat was cultivated as a a cash crop:
- Non-GMO, as man and nature work hand in hand to enable each harvest to be the best expression of the conditions, year after year. Each variety sings of its exclusive bond with the terrain.
- Toxin-free, as the Mediterranean micro-climate naturally wards off fungal growth and mycotoxins without the need for harmful chemicals. Pesticides are also not needed, as the crops grow up to 1.8m-2m, leaving pests in their wake. In contrast, modern wheat varieties, known as dwarf wheat, have short stems to withstand strong winds and allow advanced harvesting techniques.
- Gut-friendly gluten, as the type of gluten in Sicilian ancient grains is naturally-occurring and more compatible with our digestive systems.
- Flavourful and fragrant, as each variety represents a careful cultivation and adaptation to the unique properties of each locality. Each variety has a personality indicative of its ecosystem.
- Superfood, as each harvest converts the best from the land and the sunshine into polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, as well as soluble and insoluble fibres. Stone-milled, Sicilian ancient grains retain all their flavours and nutrients, to be passed on to the food we make and consume.
One way to trace how ancient a grain is, is to look at its chromosome structure. The simpler the structure, the less evolved / hybridised the variety is. However, how ancient a grain is, is not the single one test to determine a grain’s quality and health value. The key is to understand if the evolution (increase in chromosome sets) occurred spontaneously and naturally, or if the varieties were revolutionised.
Einkorn and emmer are the first varieties to be “domesticated” by man, i.e. taken from the wild and cultivated in fields. They were native to Egypt and ancient Greece, and the area of modern-day Turkey, respectively.
Einkorn is perhaps the only diploid species (two sets of chromosomes) cultivated today, while emmer is a tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes). Another well-known tetraploid is Kamut, which is actually the commercial name of the Khorasan grain. Khorasan is an area in modern-day Northeastern Iran, and the khorasan grain had also travelled to Northern Africa and Sicily where it became known as Perciasacchi. Perciasacchi is just one of the many Sicilian ancient grains. Together with emmer, Perciasacchi and most other Sicilian ancient grains like Timilia and Margherito are all tetraploid species (four sets of chromosomes).
Spelt, on the other hand, appeared some time later and is believed to be a naturally occurring hybrid between domesticated emmer and a wild goat grass. Similarly, there are soft Sicilian ancient grains, such as Majorca, that developed spontaneously when tetraploids cross-fertilised with wild wheat varieties. They are hexaploid species (six sets of chromosomes), and travelled together with spelt from Ancient Greece to Central Europe.
Hexaploids like Spelt and Majorca are closely related to the common wheat variety, also a hexaploid. However, unlike Spelt and Majorca, common wheat accounts for 95% of the wheat produced worldwide, and is the grain with the highest monetary yield. This is thanks to the revolutionisation of the common wheat, such as the introduction of rust-resistant and dwarfing genes.
So, in essence, Sicilian ancient grains share much with their more “famous” counterparts, in terms of structure and origin. Different varieties ended up establishing and expanding in different territories either due to migration patterns or climatic conditions. Cultivation methods and the environment then influenced the properties, taste and texture of different varieties, and culture determined how each variety was processed and consumed. All these ancient grains developed naturally, with man and nature working hand in hand.
Sicilian ancient grains are not gluten-free. However, compared to standard wheat varieties, Sicilian ancient grains contains weaker gluten that is gut-friendly gluten and therefore suitable for people who are gluten-sensitive. Naturally-occurring gluten in these ancient grains are of a different quality than standardised (and at times fortified) gluten that is found in modern wheat varieties that have been selectively bred to respond well to protein-enhancing methods and therefore contain more gluten-forming protein.
In a single pass between two stone discs, nothing is added nor removed. Given all the of Sicilian ancient grains, in terms of taste, texture and nutrients, it makes sense to want to preserve all this goodness. Milling these grains in industrial rollers means stripping them of their most nutritious layers in order to quickly refine the starchy endosperm into fluffy flour. Stone-milling, on the other hand, allows the bran (the outer layer; rich in fibres, vitamins and minerals) and the germ (the core of the grain, rich in antioxidants, vitamins and healthy fats) to be milled into flour together with the endosperm, ensuring that each grain’s identity and soul remains intact and its fragrance, flavours and nutrients can be passed on to the food that we make and consume.
Whatever you can do with mass-produced flour, you can do with Sicilian ancient grains. As these grains were not cultivated nor processed with the end in mind (unlike cake flour or bread flour), each variety is distinguished by the toughness of the grain, and its protein content, flavours and aromas. It may take a bit of experimenting in the kitchen to find the perfect blend for a particular recipe, but we have done some of the work for you. The exceptional flavours and aromas in each variety also mean that even if your cake doesn’t rise as high as you expected it to or your waffle turns out a little too crisp, you can be rest assured that it will always be a scrumptious, natural and nutritious treat.