Definitions

wild emmer

Emmer

[em-er]

Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), also known as farro especially in Italy, is a low yielding, awned wheat. It was one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. It was widely cultivated in the ancient world, but is now a relict crop in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.

Taxonomy

Strong similarities in morphology and genetics show that wild emmer (Triticum dicoccoides Koern.) is the wild ancestor and a crop wild relative of domesticated emmer (Triticum dicoccon). Because wild and domesticated emmer are interfertile with other tetraploid wheats, some taxonomists consider all tetraploid wheats to belong to one species, T. turgidum. Under this scheme, the two forms are recognized at subspecies level, thus T. turgidum subsp. dicoccoides and T. turgidum subsp. dicoccon. Either naming system is equally valid; the latter lays more emphasis on genetic similarities

For a wider discussion, see Wheat#Genetics & Breeding and Wheat taxonomy

Wild emmer

Wild emmer (Triticum dicoccoides) grows wild in the fertile crescent of the Near East. It is a tetraploid wheat formed by the hybridisation of two diploid wild grasses, Triticum urartu (closely related to wild einkorn, T. boeoticum), and an as yet unidentified Aegilops species related to A. searsii or A. speltoides.

Morphology

Like einkorn and spelt wheats, emmer is a hulled wheat. In other words, it has strong glumes (husks) that enclose the grains, and a semi-brittle rachis. On threshing, a hulled wheat spike breaks up into spikelets. These require milling or pounding to release the grains from the glumes.

History

In 1906, Aaron Aaronsohn's discovery of grains of emmer wheat (triticum dicoccum) growing wild in Rosh Pina created a stir in the botanical world. Emmer wheat has been found in archaeological excavations and ancient tombs. Grains discovered at Ohalo II had a radiocarbon dating of 17,000 BC, and grains at the Pre Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) site of Netiv Hagdud have been declared 10,000-9400 years old.

DNA studies on emmer wheat have shown its place of domestication to be near Şanlıurfa, in Turkey. Domesticated emmer first appears at Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent, either in the PPNA period (9800-8800 cal BC) or the early-mid PPNB (8800-7500 cal BC). Emmer wheat and barley were the dominant crops of the ancient Near East, and spread in the Neolithic to Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

In the Near East, in southern Mesopotamia in particular, cultivation of emmer wheat began to decline in the Early Bronze Age, from about 3000 BC, and barley became the standard cereal crop. This has been related to increased salinization of irrigated alluvial soils, of which barley is more tolerant. Emmer had a special place in ancient Egypt, where it was the only wheat cultivated in Pharaonic times, even though neighbouring countries also cultivated einkorn, durum and common wheat. In the absence of any obvious functional explanation, this may simply reflect a marked culinary or cultural preference. Emmer and barley were the primary ingedients in ancient Egyptian bread and beer. In Morocco DNA results of the cereals at Volubilis indicates significant occurrence of hulled emmer.

Emmer wheat is mentioned in ancient rabbinic literature (as one of the five grains forbidden to Jews during Passover). It is often incorrectly translated as spelt in English translations of the rabbinic literature but spelt did not grow in ancient Israel and emmer was a significant crop until the end of the Iron Age. Likewise, references to emmer in Greek and Latin texts are traditionally translated as "spelt," even though spelt was not common in the Classical world until very late in its history.

In northeastern Europe, Emmer (in addition to Einkorn and barley) was one of the most important cereal species and this importance can be seen to increase from 3400 BC onwards. Pliny the Elder, notes that although emmer was called far in his time formerly it was called adoreum (or "glory"), providing an etymology explaining that emmer had been held in glory (N.H. 18.3), and later in the same book he describes its role in sacrifices.

Cultivation

Wild wheat seeds (triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccoides) were discovered to self-cultivate by propelling themselves mechanically into soils with their awns. During a period of increased humidity during the nighttimes, the seed's awns become erect and draw together, and in the process push the grain into the soil. During the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; however fine silica hairs on the awns act as hooks in the soil and prevent the seeds from reversing back out again. During the course of alternating stages of daytime and nighttime humidity, the awns' air powered pumping movements, which resemble a swimming frog kick, will drill the grain as much as an inch or more into the soil.

Today emmer is primarily a relict crop in mountainous areas. Its value lies in its ability to give good yields on poor soils, and its resistance to fungal diseases such as stem rust that are prevalent in wet areas. Emmer is grown in Morocco, Spain (Asturias), the Carpathian mountains on the border of the Czech and Slovak republics, Albania, Turkey, Switzerland and Italy.

Italy is an interesting case as, uniquely, emmer cultivation is well established and even expanding. In the mountainous Garfagnana area of Tuscany emmer (known as farro) is grown by farmers as an IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) product, with its geographic identity protected by law. Production is certified by a co-operative body, the Consorzio Produttori Farro della Garfagnana. IGP-certified farro is widely available in health food shops across Europe, and even in some British supermarkets. The demand for Italian farro has led to competition from non-certified farro, grown in lowland areas and often consisting of a different wheat species, spelt (Triticum spelta).

Uses

A traditional food plant in Africa, this little-known grain has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.

Food uses

Emmer's main use is as a human food, though it is also used for animal feed. Ethnographic evidence from Turkey and other emmer-growing areas suggests that emmer makes good bread (judged by the taste and texture standards of traditional bread), and this is supported by evidence of its widespread consumption as bread in ancient Egypt. Emmer bread is widely available in Switzerland. In Italy emmer bread (pane di farro) can be found in many bakeries, though not everywhere. Emmer has been traditionally consumed as whole grains, in soup, in Tuscany. Its use for making pasta is a recent response to the health food market; some judge that emmer pasta has an unattractive texture. On the contrary whole emmer grains can be easily found in most Italian supermarkets and groceries.

Emmer wheat is closely related to durum wheat and common wheat and is therefore unsuitable for sufferers from wheat allergies or coeliac disease.

Notes

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