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Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat, is a species of wheat cultivated since 5000 BCE. Spelt was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times; it now survives as a relict crop in Central Europe and northern Spain and has found a new market as a health food. Spelt is sometimes considered a subspecies of the closely related species common wheat (T. aestivum), in which case its botanical name is considered to be Triticum aestivum subsp. spelta. It is a hexaploid wheat, which means it has six sets of chromosomes.
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Spelt has a complex history. It is a wheat species known from genetic evidence to have originated as a hybrid of a domesticated tetraploid wheat such as emmer wheat and the wild goat-grass Aegilops tauschii. This hybridisation must have taken place in the Near East because this is where Ae. tauschii grows, and it must have taken place before the appearance of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum, a hexaploid free-threshing derivative of spelt) in the archaeological record c. 8,000 years ago.
Genetic evidence shows that spelt wheat can also arise as the result of hybridisation of bread wheat and emmer wheat, although only at some date following the initial Aegilops-tetraploid wheat hybridisation. The much later appearance of spelt in Europe might thus be the result of a later, second, hybridisation between emmer and bread wheat. Recent DNA evidence supports an independent origin for European spelt through this hybridisation. Whether spelt has two separate origins in Asia and Europe, or single origin in the Near East, is currently unresolved.
The earliest archaeological evidence of spelt is from the fifth millennium BC in Transcaucasia, north-east of the Black Sea, though the most abundant and best-documented archaeological evidence of spelt is in Europe. Remains of spelt have been found in some later Neolithic sites (2500–1700 BC) in Central Europe. During the Bronze Age, spelt spread widely in central Europe. In the Iron Age (750-15 BC), spelt became a principal wheat species in southern Germany and Switzerland; by 500 BC, it was in common use in southern Britain.
In the Middle Ages, spelt was cultivated in parts of Switzerland, Tyrol and Germany. Spelt was introduced to the United States in the 1890s. In the 20th century, spelt was replaced by bread wheat in almost all areas where it was still grown. The organic farming movement revived its popularity somewhat toward the end of the century, as spelt requires fewer fertilizers.
Spelt contains about 57.9 percent carbohydrates (excluding 9.2 percent fibre), 17.0 percent protein and 3.0 percent fat, as well as dietary minerals and vitamins. As it contains a moderate amount of gluten, it is suitable for some baking. However, because spelt contains gluten it is not suitable for people with coeliac disease. In comparison to hard red winter wheat, spelt has a more soluble protein matrix characterized by a higher gliadin:glutenin ratio.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||1,415 kJ (338 kcal)|
|Dietary fibre||10.7 g|
|Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.|
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Spelt flour is becoming more easily available, being sold in British supermarkets for a number of years. Spelt bread is sold in health food shops and some bakeries in an increasing variety of types of loaf, similar in colour to light rye breads but usually with a slightly sweet and nutty flavour. Biscuits, crackers, and pretzels are also produced, but are more likely to be found in a specialty bakery or health food store than in a regular grocer's shop.
Spelt pasta is also available in health food stores and specialty shops.
Flour from sprouted spelt grains is increasingly available throughout North America in grocery and health food stores.
Spelt is more expensive than modern wheats, first because it is a minority product, but also because it requires the extra stage of husk removal before milling. It makes a rather soft, light loaf with a very good flavour, and it is particularly good for flatbreads, because they can become crisp without being hard (ordinary wheat pizza, for instance, tends to be either tough and leathery or hard).
While today spelt is a specialty crop, its popularity as a peasants' staple food of the past has been attested in literature. Although today's Russian-speaking children perhaps don't know exactly what polba (spelt) looks or tastes like, they may recognize the word as something-or-other that can be made into porridge, having heard Pushkin's well-rhymed story in which the poor workman Balda asks his employer the priest "to feed me boiled spelt" ("есть же мне давай варёную полбу"). In Horace's Satire 2.6 (late 31 - 30 B.C.), which ends with the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse, the country mouse eats spelt at dinner while serving his city guest finer foods.
In The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Pietro della Vigna appears as a suicide in Circle VII, ring ii, Canto XIII of the Inferno. Pietro describes the fate awaiting souls guilty of suicide to Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil. According to Pietro, the soul of the suicide grows into a wild tree and is tormented by harpies that feast upon its leaves. Pietro likens the initial growth and transformation of the soul of the suicide to the germination of a grain of spelt (Inferno XIII, 94-102).
Spelt is also mentioned in the Bible. Ezekiel 4:9 says: "Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof ...", though as noted above this is presumably a mistranslation and should be "emmer". It is mentioned again in Isaiah 28:25: "...and put in the wheat in rows and the barley in the appointed place and the spelt in the border thereof?"
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