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Ancient Grains or Modern Grains?


In 2020, two famous ancient grains have had their birthday. Ardito has turned 100 years old and Senatore Cappelli turned 105. Greeks and Romans offered spelt to the Gods, Aztecs considered chia seeds worthy of tributes, and farro is noted in the Old Testament. Today, approximately 70% of cultivated land is destined to the production of cereals, mostly wheat, barley, rye, rice, millet, sorghum, and corn. No other plant has influenced the history of man like wheat, whose cultivation can be dated back to 12000 years ago in the “Fertile Crescent”, that area of the Middle East extending from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. It dates back to 9000 years ago the beginning of an aware selection of cereals favoring those with a stronger blade in the domestication process of Triticum. The oldest type of grain is Triticum monococcum, a small spelt, dating back to 10,000 years ago, has a simple genetic structure; Triticum dicoccum, now only used in some parts of Tuscany, was used by ancient Romans; Triticum durum derives from a genetic mutation and is used for pasta; spelta spelt is another variation through crossing with a spontaneous grain; Triticum aestivum has several varieties and is the youngest of ancient grains.

What does “ancient grain” mean? These romantic words bring the mind back to ancient Egyptians and Jews who are credited with the invention of yeast and the preparation of bread around 4000 B.C. even though it was actually the Greeks who mastered the art of bakery, brought it to Sicily and then to Rome. The bakery was so important that the production of bread was under a judge’s jurisdiction and the price of bread was controlled.

Ancient grains however do not only refer to the ancient past but to the great divide which was the so-called green revolution of the mid-20th century. At that time, in order to decrease world hunger, various techniques, like gamma, X, and UV rays and irradiation, and products, like chemical fertilizers, were used to produce species which could yield higher crops. Ancient grains are those cereals, some of which date to the 1930s, with a common characteristic: they have remained original and derive from the then-existing biodiversity.

In Italy there are almost 300 types of ancient grains of which the best known are Senatore Cappelli (that just turned 105 years old), Biancolilla, Etrusco, Frassineto, Madonita, Maiorca, Perciasacchi, Rieti, Russello, Timilia or Tumminia, Verna among many other. Since the dawn of agriculture, man has always tried to improve cultivations. The criteria man used were very simple: productivity and flavor. With industrialization, criteria changed: while productivity remained important, flavor has been substituted by resistance to industrial processes.

Modern grains have a higher gluten index and allow for more elastic doughs which better endure thermal shocks. As a consequence, for example, drying times for pasta have gone from 24 hours to 2-3 hours at a temperature of 120 degrees C instead of 30-40 degrees C, and the higher gluten index makes pasta more durable. The problem with modern grains gluten is not so much its percentage but its strength: while in ancient grains it has a 40-80W strength, in modern grains it reaches 350W which make it more inflammatory than the former.

In Italy, the first species of modern grains were Castelfusano, Castelporziano and, in the ‘70s, Creso. Until a few years ago, ancient grains were set aside in favor of the higher yielding modern grains. According to FAO, 75% of plant variety has been lost and 60% of world food is based on 3 cereals: wheat, rice, and corn. Of these, only a few man-constituted hybrid varieties are cultivated because they are higher yielding (40-50 q/ha instead of 20 q/ha) and sturdier thanks also to their “dwarfization” which avoids lodging, allows the use of mechanical harvesting of grains, have earlier sprouting of the blade or ear, produce less biomass and thus more nitrogen gets to grains. As if lower production were not enough, ancient grains seeds are much more expensive than modern grains. Notwithstanding these factors, the cultivation of ancient grains is booming in Italy.

In 2017, Senatore Cappelli ancient grain production has doubled in comparison with the previous year. This is due not only to greater attention to the environment and to maintaining local biodiversity but also to the nutritional characteristics: lower gluten, lower sugar, high proteins and other elements like magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, B and E vitamins. Furthermore, this type of grain does not need high much water and endures well to parasites. The Societa’ Italiana Sementi (SIS, Italian Seeds Society) has encouraged the return of this grain because, as Mario Conti, its past president, states “Senatore Cappelli thanks to its genetic characteristics is proving to be suitable to new cultivation needs with high organoleptic standards which fulfill the demand of a good and healthy nutrition”.

Stone grinding is tied to ancient grains cultivation. This process allows the complete preservation of the germ as well as the kernel nutritional value with no alteration of lipids and phenols which are responsible for the enhanced taste of finished products.

In Western Sicily, Filippo Drago is investing in both ancient grains, more specifically the variety called Tumminia, and stone grinding. He has been interviewed by the New York Times and the Castelvetrano “black bread” can already be found in Manhattan. The flour used for this bread is a blend of entirely stone-ground grains, made without any part of the grain kernel being removed so it has all of the grain’s bran, germ, and endosperm skillfully milled into a homogeneous flour. “The future of cereals production is in ancient grains”, Filippo Drago states. “In Castelvetrano we have 12 French stone mills and in nearby Selinunte we have 4”. Two of these machines date back to the 1800s and side by side he has modern machines for the production of better flours. For the production of ancient grains, Drago, owner of Molino del Ponte, has agreements with colleagues from other parts of Italy who guarantee the same quality: Mulino Sobrino in La Morra and Mulino Marino in Cossano Belbo, both in Piedmont, Claudio Merlo in Sardinia, and Mulino San Floro in Calabria.

Pasta made with this flour is in high demand by chefs like Pino Cuttaia, whose restaurant in Licata, Sicily, has been named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world by the Diners Club.

On the other side of Sicily, in Raddusa, Giuseppe Li Rosi cultivates ancient grains and produces finished products like flour, pasta and cookies. Like Drago, he has involved 70 other producers and many more are applying for admission. “The producer who wants to manage this type of grain must dedicate at least 10 hectares to each colture maintaining the grain purity. These techniques date back to thousands of years ago and require patience. The first year, crops are not high but the second and fourth year the yield is much higher”.

In Euromonitor’s 8 Food Trends report, healthy living is recognized as one of the eight megatrends, with ancient grains being called out as an example of this trend in action, and consumers’ preference for “naturally functional” foods. It is true however, that according to another line of thought, these grains have received much attention thanks to a great marketing strategy based on the highly evocative name of “ancient” while they are in reality 50 or 100 years old. They are portrayed as more authentic, less refined, more digestible and with less gluten in comparison to other wheat of large scale productions but, according to this other line of thought, also supported by CREA (Cerealicoltura e Colture Industriali) of Foggia, Italy, and by the University of Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma, there really is not much difference. According to this study, as stated by Umberto Scognamiglio of Rome CREA and nutritionist, ancient grains are not edible by those suffering from celiac disease and there is no scientific evidence of a correlation between celiac disease and the consumption of a specific type of wheat, the use of pesticides in agriculture, and the type of soil exploitation. Supporters of ancient grains state these are more flavorful, others believe the difference depends on the type of cereal and on the cereal process of transformation into the finished product. So the healthy choice appears to be not between ancient and modern grains but between more or less fiber, with wholewheat products providing the higher quantity of fibers which guarantees a series of nutritional properties which are important for our health.

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