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Ancient Grains from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Ancient Grains from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

From Amaranth to Zero Points, a list of interesting facts and figures about ancient grains: old varieties are usually tastier and of superior quality.

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Amaranth. It begins opportunely with an “a” but would in any case be the perfect “ancient grain" to introduce this topic. Grown in South America from time immemorial – at least since 4000 BC – its tiny pearls are vaguely reminiscent of hazelnuts and rich in nutrients, especially proteins.

Buckwheat. Probably the tastiest of grains, it is certainly one of the most expensive. With its dark colour, the strange shape of its seed and slightly sweetish taste, it is very low in fat and rich in antioxidants. Russia and Eastern Europe show a particular fondness for this grain.

Chia. The Salvia hispanica is a flowering plant native to Mexico and Guatemala. Cultivated by the Aztecs, today it is considered to be a "superfood": in recent years, its growth on world markets has reached peaks of over 200%.

Drago. Filippo Drago is the “Sicilian guru of the ancient grains” preserved in the museum of Caltagirone, Catania; they are kept alive and marketed by the firm Molini del Ponte.

Einkorn. This term comprises both the cultivated crop and the equivalent wild species (single grain or small grain) of this ancient cereal, which was grown in eastern areas of the Mediterranean starting from 3,000 BC.

Farro (spelt). The Ancient Roman legions, sent out to conquer the world, received daily rations of it. Triticum dicoccum – also called emmer wheat – is the most ancient type of grain from Anatolia. Its unique flavour and pleasantly rubbery texture came back into vogue among more mindful Italian consumers and really took off from there.

Genetic makeup. Ancient grains – at least some varieties – still have their original genetic makeup: their preservation also safeguards biodiversity.

Hlalam. This is a type of pasta similar to Ligurian trofie, and is a speciality of the hilly regions of Lansarin and Gaffaya, about 30 kilometres from Tunis, where Mahmoudi e Schili – the two varieties of extremely ancient grain used to make it – are grown.

Injera. An unleavened Ethiopian bread made from flour of sorghum, the fifth most important grain in the world, produced mainly as animal fodder.

Jabal ‘Amel. This is the Lebanese region that produces Freekeh – also known as Farhid – an original type of green wheat that is harvested when still unripe, laid out on stones and roasted with the wood of a local shrub called balan.

Kamut. An extremely ancient grain, the Khorasan cultivar, one of the first ever to be grown, has 20-40% more protein than other grains. It was patented in 1990 under the registered trademark of Kamut by the eponymous company based in Montana, USA.

Love-lies-bleeding. This is one of the three main varieties of amaranth, Amaranthus caudatus, so called because of its cascading amaranth-coloured flowers. In India and South America its leaves and seeds are also consumed. Amaranthus cruentus, or Red Amaranth, is the main species cultivated for nutritional purposes. The third, Amaranthus hypochondriacus, commonly called Prince-of-Wales Feather, is primarily used as an ornamental plant.

Millet. A life-saving crop in many Asian and African countries, it also used to be an important grain on the Old Continent: in 1378 Venice resisted the siege by the Genoa Maritime Republic thanks to the stock of millet in its grain stores. It is now making a comeback and is appreciated almost everywhere in the world.

Nyeli. Also known as Job’s Tears, this grain grows between the paddy fields in Sarawak, Borneo, and is farmed by the native Iban people.

Orge brassicole la Ponote. A French barley, produced in the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alps. Like that of the Belluno valleys in Italy (also used to make barley coffee) and that of Sfax and Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, it is one of the varieties of Hordeum vulgare – the genus to which barley belongs – safeguarded by Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

Pseudo cereals. The category of ancient grains also comprises the pseudo cereals, that is to say, those that are not herbaceous plants, but whose nutritional use is similar to that of cereals, and are believed to have undergone very little change in thousands of years as a result of human manipulation. Examples of such cereals are amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and chia.

Quinoa. Originally from the Andes, its name means “mother grain” in Quechua. A flat, fragile and light-coloured grain, it is very versatile in cooking and endowed with remarkable properties, and its proteins are much more digestible than those of meat.

Rye. One of the traditional grains of antiquity, it is used for bread-making purposes, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Scandinavia. One of the most sought-after varieties is Waldstauden or German rye, which is used to produce a particularly dark and moist bread.

Spelt. Triticum, or large-grain spelt, is consumed daily, especially in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

Teff. The smallest grain in the world comes from the grassy plains of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the Aramaic language its name means “lost,” owing to the ease with which it can slip through your fingers. It is also used raw in sweet and savoury breadmaking, as a possible alternative to seeds.

Ur-Paarl. Ur-Paarl nach Klosterart, which in German means “convent-style double rye bread" is the typical bread speciality of the German-speaking Venosta Valley, in Trentino South Tyrol, Italy.

Very calorific. A heritage of the nomadic Tuareg tribes in the Sahel area in Mali, kram-kram is a wild grain and the one with the highest calorie content in the world. Unfortunately, it is difficult to gather because of its thorns.

Whole Grain Council. An American no-profit group engaged in promoting various ancient wholemeal grains among producers and consumers.

Xtra quality. Ancient grains are tastier and of superior quality compared to standard grains, with nuances of aroma and flavour unknown to industrialised cereals. Less refined and lower in gluten content, they are lighter and easier to digest.

5000 BC. On the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean sea, Salamouni grain was already being cultivated as early as this. It comes in two varieties: red and white.

Zero point… Kañihua is the lesser-known Andes vegetable species, even though it is of precious value in human and environmental terms. It is mainly characterised by its diameter of less than one millimetre.

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