Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Is Farro? An Ancient Italian Grain - Sorting Out the Confusion

Farro - a delicious slightly nutty tasting grain is enjoyed widely throughout Italy. Less known in the U.S.A. it is also a source of some confusion.

When I was first introduced to Farro in Tuscany I was told by the organic farmer offering it to me that is was called "spelt" in English. But it seemed different than the spelt I'd had in the states. I also observed that it was prepared quickly with no pre-soaking involved. It was plump, appetizing and chewy. My curiosity was piqued.

Because of my passion for this region of Italy with its glorious, pristine, Tuscan fields and long, sunny summer days, I imagined this "spelt" was different because of optimal growing conditions. Alternately, I was suspicious that perhaps this farro had been processed or pumped up with "steroid" like chemicals. Eventually, after much research, including a visit to one of the first organic farms in Italy, the confusion dissolved. But describing "what is farro?" is still not easy.

Many sources will explain that Farro is an ancient or "heirloom" grain known to have sustained the Roman Legions as they marched across Europe. First cultivated as early as 10,000 BC in Ethiopia it eventually migrated through the Mediterranean Region and into Europe. Farro is early on the evolutionary chain of wheat - beginning with Einkorn and ending with contemporary Durum Wheat. The most common claim is that the biological name for Farro is "Triticum Dicoccum" and that it's similar to what we call "Emmer" in English. Furthermore, "Triticum Dicoccum" or Farro is the precursor to "Triticum Spelta" or "spelt" which evolved centuries later.

But not so fast! Further research uncovers some dispute about the actual evolution of these ancient grains. The accurate origin and taxonomy of spelt is controversial. Different varieties of T. Dicoccum or Emmer are grown throughout Italy including some wild, non-domesticated versions. Further, it turns out that Italians actually refer to any hulled wheat (with a husk) as "Farro". And the literal translation of the word "farro" into English is "spelt". So emmer or spelt or einkorn are all interchangeably called "farro" in Italy. Thus the confusion!

However - rest assured! As Farro becomes better known in the U.S. we can be confident that most product sold here is actually "Triticum Diccocum". Sold both as "whole grain farro" which retains its outer husk and "Farro Perlato" - which is the plump, chewy grain I first enjoyed in Tuscany. The word "perlato" refers to the removal of some of the tough, outside husk as in "semi-pearled". Despite the removal process Farro Perlato retains its highly nutritious properties. And grain sold as "Spelt" is a harder, smaller grain that needs to be pre-soaked before cooking and is preferably used for breads, flour and pastas.

The distinguishing feature of these hulled grains is the tough husk that needs to be partially removed or pre-soaked to be edible. The Tuscan farmers I know say "even the cinghiale (wild boar) won't eat farro because of the tough husks". As a result, farro lost favor over the centuries due to the development of modern wheat - without the husks - which required less processing and produced higher yields. Unfortunately the cultivation of modern wheats also culled out many of the nutritious properties of the ancient grains and increased the amount of gluten now present in today's durum wheat.

Now it's our good fortune that organic Farro Perlato is available in America semi-pearled making it very quick and easy to cook. It has high protein, high fiber, is non-GMO, highly nutritious and has a low glycemic index of 40 when compared to other grains. Because it retains many of its ancient properties its gluten content is low and is often tolerated by people with wheat allergies. Versatile and delicious it can be served as an entrée, side dish, salad or even as a hot breakfast cereal. It's now easy to cook delectable farro dishes like those served in homes all over Italy and to enjoy the taste of Farro in fine restaurants throughout the United States.

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