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There is a harsh mountainous land in Tuscany lying to the north of Lucca and set between the Apuan Alps and the Tuscan Emilian Apennines. Farming activities are conducted in the spaces arduously reclaimed from the woodlands and rocky areas. However, for many centuries, a small plant has been grown there. The land in question is called Garfagnana and the grass-like plant is spelt, which obtained PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 1996.
What is Garfagnana spelt?
Farro della Garfagnana is the Italian name to indicate this specific kind of spelt. Spelt, whose Latin name is Triticum dicoccum and the Italian one is farro, is the most ancient grain known to man. It dates back about 9000 years and originates from the Mesopotamian plains: Syria, Egypt and Palestine. In Roman times, puls or farratum was a traditional dish similar to polenta, supposed to bring good fortune, abundance and fertility, which was prepared for newlywed couples.
Together with salt, spelt made up the salary paid to Roman centurions. In the period following the Fall of Rome, it was widely cultivated only to be gradually replaced by other grains. In the late 70’s, its destiny changed: there was a new interest in healthy genuine foods associated with the Mediterranean diet. Moreover, spelt is the grain with the lowest calorie count. So, it came back into fashion and flourished in its favourable new Tuscan habitat. In 1996, following the assignment of PGI status by the European Commission, there was a rise in the number of spelt farmers, especially in Tuscany. A consortium was set up to represent producers and to process and market the 2,500 quintals of spelt grown in Garfagnana.
Where does Garfagnana spelt come from?
Spelt in Gafagnana region grows at an altitude ranging from 300 to 1,000 metres a.s.l. It is organically farmed. The seeds are sown in autumn, as tradition demands, on land previously left as pasture for one year, in a density of 100-150 kilos per hectare. Farming may not involve the use of chemical fertilizers, plant treatment chemicals or weed killers. The use of organic fertilizers is permitted.
Harvesting takes place in July with traditional combine harvesters and the maximum production of grain per hectare must not exceed 25 quintals. This phase is followed by all the operations involved in separating the hull, or outer covering, from the grain.
How to cook Garfagnana spelt
In Garfagnana, more than 200 hectares are given over to spelt farming for an overall production that exceeds 400 tons. Most of this yield, consisting of rather small hard grains of a yellow or hazel colour end up in soups, pasta, cakes and biscuits. Spelt may be used alone or blended with other grains.
It is poor in essential aminoacids but, when combined with pulses, this deficiency is amply compensated. Spelt is very versatile and can used as a perfect substitute for pasta of all shapes and sizes, as well as rice.
Only the spelt grown in Garfagnana, owing to its particular properties, does not require pre-soaking: it is sufficient to rinse it under running water to remove any waste. The most popular and widely known local dish is a soup of spelt and mixed pulses. As thick as a soup can get, it is delicious served with a trickle of the best Tuscan olive oil. Unlike other qualities, the spelt from Garfagnana has a larger grain with more of a bite to it, when cooked.
Its flour is used to make a famous type of bread, too. Dehusked spelt needs about 45 minutes to cook, far less than barley or rye. Wholemeal grains often have the typical taste of bran which is not always pleasant but spelt offers a rich range of aromas, which is particularly noticeable in bread. It vaguely recalls the flavour of chick peas, the aroma of pine nuts and toasted almond, as well as straw and nuts, such as walnuts.