"The vast array of grains marketed as ancient—from quinoa to millet to spelt—are, yes, old. Maybe 3,000 years. Maybe 8,000. Who knows? (Also: Who cares?)" Bill Bradley - GQ
Maybe 10,000 years actually - well no, just a minute - that's wheat - and barley just 1000 years behind. But then again half of those grains that are marketed as ancient these days - spelt, bulghur, freekeh, farro, Moghrabieh - are actually different forms of wheat. And triticale is actually a modern hybrid of wheat and rye. It was first developed in Scotland in 1875 but the botanist Stephen Wilson who worked on it could not get it to reproduce, and so it was abandoned until the 1930s when the French eventually succeeded. So definitely not an ancient grain.
Then there's the ancient grains that actually aren't grains anyway - quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and chia and the truly ancient grains that are not considered ancient - the aforesaid wheat and barley, millet, teff, and oats. Rice, you might be interested to know only seems to be 4,500 years old. Which sort of leaves just sorghum which is both old and a grain.
So why call these trendy ingredients ancient grains? Well the sort of official definition is a grain that is:
"largely unchanged over the last several hundred years." Oldways Whole Grains Council
Also odd - they only say the last 100 years, what about the thousands of years before that? And does this include the pseudo cereals I mentioned above? Or is it all just marketing? The evidence is that the term 'ancient grains' as used nowadays to imply health and virtue, was first coined back in 1996 by the Daily News of New York.
I actually dipped into 'old' history myself, by checking out my copy of Bert Greene's The Grains Cookbook, written in 1988, which has a section on The New Grains - note that he calls them 'new'. He only mentions three - Amaranth, Quinoa and Triticale - which as we now know is not ancient. Elsewhere in the book he has chapters on wild rice (not a rice), bulghur, buckwheat and semolina - but then buckwheat is big in America anyway, and semolina is wheat.
Ancient wheat took three forms - spelt, einkorn and emmer. Modern wheat has been messed with down the centuries to produce the high-yielding forms that make up the modern wheat industry. Maybe all of that went too far - monocultures, reliance on fertilisers, high usage of water, land erosion and so on, but I'm guessing, without researching it, that this also is changing due to climate change. I bet the grain manipulators are working on more drought resistant strains. After all, wheat, rice, and maize in some form or another are the basic foodstuffs of the world. Interestingly all of the 'grains' of American origin, which are not really grains were developed because in America there were no animals large enough, and tame enough to pull ploughs, and so they could not sow vast quantities of seed at once, and had to plant individual plants by hand.
But in spite of my scorn all of them are worth investigating and much in use in Middle-Eastern and by the 'health food' brigade, because, they are indeed healthy. Bert Greene goes so far as to say of amaranth
"This small grain - only slightly larger than a poppy seed - provides the human system with the most effective balance of protein under the sun."
And isn't it pretty?
I have written about quinoa before, so I should probably, at some point look at all of the others individually, but at last I come to why I'm talking about ancient grains at all. For here I have to admit that I recoil inadvertently from buying any of them because of all the hype.
Last weekend we dined with our second son and family. It was a vegetarian meal - they are becoming more vegetarian because of their older daughter's decision to become vegetarian. There was an absolutely divine humus, pita breads - much more successful than mine, two different falafels - the carrot ones were particularly delicious and an ancient grain salad - very yummy. Then in the middle of a different conversation with my daughter-in-law I mentioned that I was trying to think of something to write about on my blog and she sent me this picture of the salad (there were leftovers) with some dal. So here I am writing about ancient grain salads. And it was indeed very tasty I have to say.
I checked on the net and there are literally thousands of recipes with - my guess - this rather lovely looking Cypriot grain salad made with freekeh from George Calombaris being the favourite. Several versions of it certainly topped the Google search. And it does look rather lovely.
So what else did I find? Here is a selection just for you to get inspired. My daughter-in-law said hers was from the Australian Women's Weekly book on Mediterranean food, so it could be either: Five grain salad with feta and oranges or Mediterranean grain salad
The rest are from the two top Middle-East guys - Greg Malouf - Toasted nuts, seeds and grains with smashed cherries, herbs and goat's curd and Ottolenghi - Farro and roasted red pepper salad and Ottolenghi - Red rice and quinoa salad with orange and pistachios; plus one - Ancient grain salad, goat’s curd, pomegranate, crisp fried shallots from our own Phillipa Sibley.
Salad season is almost over I guess, although I'm also guessing that you could make a warm salad with some of these grains. Also this is the kind of recipe that you could play around with - not like curry. And if lettuce continues to be as highly priced as it is right now, then maybe we should all have a go at an ancient grain salad. Try one or a few from this selection or from the net, and then you can probably have a go yourself. The mix of ingredients would be pretty simple once you know how to cook the various grains. It's the dressing that is more difficult perhaps - which is where the experts come in useful.