Spelt (Triticum spelta) is a hexaploid species of wheat. 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 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.
Spelt has a complex history. It is a hexaploid 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 prior to the appearance of bread wheat
, 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 event between emmer and bread wheat. Recent DNA evidence supports an independent origin for European spelt, through this hybridisation. However 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 of the Black Sea
. However, 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, and by 500 BC also in southern Britain.
References to the cultivation of spelt wheat in Biblical times (see matzo), in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in ancient Greece, are incorrect, and result from confusion with emmer wheat. Nevertheless, as a Triticum species, spelt is still forbidden for use during the Jewish holiday of Passover, except in the form of matzo.
In the Middle Ages
, spelt was cultivated in parts of Switzerland
. Spelt was introduced to the United States
in the 1890s
. In the 20th century
, spelt was replaced in almost all those areas in which it was still grown by bread wheat. As spelt requires fewer fertilizers
, the organic farming
movement made it more popular again towards the end of the century.
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
. As it contains a moderate amount of gluten
, it is suitable for baking
. In Germany, the unripe spelt grains are dried
and eaten as Grünkern
, which literally means "green grain".
Spelt is closely related to common wheat, and is not suitable for people with celiac disease. Some people with wheat allergy or wheat intolerance tolerate spelt.
Spelt flour is becoming more easily available, being sold in British
supermarkets since 2007.
Spelt is also sold in the form of a coarse pale bread, similar in colour and in texture to light rye breads but with a slightly sweet and nutty flavour. Biscuits and crackers 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 speciality shops.
The raw grain when chewed releases trace amounts of gluten giving the mass a slight resilience, not unlike gum (whereas wheat becomes a sticky glutinous mass, similar to thick jam). The texture is slightly crunchy. The nutty flavour is more intense than it is in most breads and some prefer the raw substance to the baked goods.
Dutch jenever makers distill a special kind of gin made with spelt as a curiosity gin marketed for connoisseurs. Beer brewed from spelt is sometimes seen in Bavaria.
Spelt matzo is baked in Israel for Passover and is available in some American grocery stores.
While today spelt is merely a specialty crop, its popularity as a peasants' staple food of the past has been attested in literature works that still enjoy currency. Although today's Russian
-speaking children may not know what exactly spelt is, they may have heard Pushkin
's well-rhymed story of workman Balda
asking his employer the priest "to feed me boiled spelt" ("есть же мне давай варёную полбу").