Italian grains are many, but Sicilian ancient grains are very interesting and good for health. Let’s find out about the rediscovered role of Sicily as the granary of Italy, as the “nurse on whose breast the Roman people fed”.
Let’s briefly review the history of ancient wheat and discover the world of ancient grains in Sicily!
The evolutionary history of wheat and man have walked together and influenced each other. A link that began with the cultivation of monocot spelt (Triticum monococcum), followed by dicoccus spelt (Triticum dicoccum).
Wild Triticums are the first to come into contact with humans. They differ from the selected and cultivated ones because they have more substantial outer coverings and the seed falls to the ground when ripe. With genetic improvement, these two aspects have disappeared in order to facilitate harvesting and milling. Hexaploid (i.e. containing six pairs of chromosomes) “naked” grain wheat is favoured.
Throughout agricultural evolution, Italian grains have been selected, consciously and unconsciously. The genetic improvement of ancient wheat began with Nazareno Strampelli. He worked mainly in Sicily and carried out cross-breeding and selection plans that led to a preference for more productive wheat to meet the ever-increasing demand for flour. And it is precisely in Sicily, in this land that is a reservoir of cultures, that we rediscover the ancestral cereal growing tradition.
What are ancient grains? What is meant by ancient Sicilian grains? A nebulous and controversial topic. In this short article, I will try to illustrate the importance of ancient wheat.
The (re)discovery and valorisation of ancient grains in Sicily
Some clarifications on the term “ancient”, which is often misused while talking about Italian grain.
The expression has mainly commercial connotations. It refers to ancient wheat varieties which are not grown on an industrial scale today, because they are not suitable for intensive cultivation.
Local agriculture has preserved ancient wheat varieties, especially in Sicily. And in fact, in this region, we find the most famous types of these Italian grains. Today they are a precious heritage both for their organoleptic properties and for their value in terms of ecological conversion with a view to protecting the environment.
The consortium’s experimental graniculture station in Caltagirone has played a fundamental role in recognising the value of Sicily’s ancient grains. It is an institute dealing with the genetic improvement of wheat, legumes and other herbaceous crops.
The technical and scientific staff of the Sicilian institute started to catalogue the oldest varieties of ancient grains from Sicily several years ago. Their in-depth work has thus brought to light these cereal crops, which were and still are cultivated by the skilful hands of Sicilian farmers.
This is a sector of particular importance for Sicilian agriculture. Wheat is a crop and a culture, that has always occupied a large share of the agricultural land used in Sicily.
The island has got all the environmental characteristics of the Mediterranean basin: a wide variety of microclimates and different types of soil. The synthesis of these natural conditions makes it a land suited to the cultivation of ancient grains. The organoleptic complexity that characterises these ancient varieties derives from a combination of environmental (as well as genetic) factors such as climate and soil, which interact with the plant. The fertile soil nourishes the crop.
This nutrient is complexed and harmonised in the components of the plant. It is “returned” to the farmers and to the taste buds of all those who try the products made from this type of Sicilian flour. It is as if the farmer is being rewarded for all the work and effort he has put into the field. And so a virtuous circle of quality, value, protection of taste and territory is established.
Italian grains & the opulence of ancient wheat
Ancient wheat is characterised by a high plant height (up to 1.50 m), late ripening and low productivity. It can produce as much as half of the most modern wheat. This is why its cultivation has always been marginal.
On the contrary, ancient wheat has good nutritional value thanks to its high fibre, vitamin, antioxidant and mineral content. The three hundred different seeds of these Italian grains refer to the five areas of the Sicilian territory: high mountains, high hills, hills, plains and plains near the coast.
I will introduce the ancient grains to you:
The Sicilian wheat called “Tumminia” or “Timilia” is grown inland. It is a hard wheat with a short cycle. It is also called “grano marzuolo” because it is sown in March and harvested in June. This ancient wheat is one of the Sicilian grains most appreciated for its beneficial properties. In fact, it contains a conspicuous quantity of lignin, a complex polymer known for its anti-tumour action. But it is also and above all apprecited for its gastronomic value: with the flour obtained from Tumminia, the “Pane Nero di Castelvetrano” is produced.
This ancient wheat has a pointed caryopsis and owes its name to this characteristic. Perciasacchi, in fact, derives from “buca sacchi” (in english, piercing the bags) because it punctured jute sacks during transport. These ancient grains are mainly grown in the Agrigento area. The particularity of this cereal variety is its height: it can reach up to 1.80 metres. Thanks to this impressiveness, it manages to prevail over weeds. The flour obtained from this ancient wheat is yellow in colour, an aspect justified by the presence of carotenoids. It is used to make savoury baked goods and dry pasta.
Russello, Ruscio or Russieddru, is another variety of ancient grains: a durum wheat with a red-coloured ear. Its cultivation is widespread in the Sicilian hinterland.It has got a medium earliness of sowing, late maturation and low productivity. Russello is used to make the hard bread from the Hyblaean Mountains. The bread made from the Sicilian flour produced from this ancient wheat develop a slight herbal aroma.
This is one of the most interesting ancient grains. It is a soft wheat with a white grain and quick maturation. It is also widely cultivated in Puglia. In Sicily, the Majorca has contributed to composing the very rich gastronomic expression of this island, which we all know and appreciate. So much so that the flour obtained from this ancient wheat is used in most confectionery productions. In particular, this Italian grain is used to make two Sicilian sweets: almond paste cookies and cannoli.
This is an autumn durum wheat cultivar. It is a hardy variety, very resistant, adapted to the climate of Southern Italy and selected by Nazareno Strampelli from North African grains. It is probably one of the best known ancient grains from Sicily. It can reach a height of 1.80 metres and is rich in lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. This ancient wheat is mainly used to make pasta.
These are some of the best known ancient grains. They are usually grown organically and the process to obtain the flour is the same for all of them.
It is important to make a distinction: from durum wheat, we obtain semolina and flour from which we make pasta; from soft wheat, we obtain a flour suited to breadmaking.
Regardless of whether it is hard or soft wheat, special attention is paid to the processing of ancient cereal varieties. Milling is stone milling. This involves grinding the entire grain, including the germ and outer shell. This operation ensures that the grain is not overheated. It therefore preserves the organoleptic and nutritional properties of ancient grains. It retains fibre, B vitamins, minerals, tocopherols, proteins and fats.
Ancient & modern grains – Can we compare Italian grain?
It would be more correct to call them pre-industrialisation and post-industrialisation grains. They are obviously different grains, with different purposes, from which we obtain different flours and products.
The former are not suitable for industry because of their low productivity, but also because of their low gluten index. In other words, ancient grains have a weak gluten mesh which makes them unsuitable for certain processes. They are more digestible due to their high fibre content and the beneficial substances listed above, but a coeliac cannot eat products made from these Sicilian flours. The great value of these Italian grains lies in their ability to release ancestral, rustic aromas and scents.
Another great strength of this ancient heritage is their value in environmental protection. They represent an opportunity for the protection of natural resources and the conservation of biodiversity, in response to ecosystem degradation and climate change. They are a tool for achieving ecological conversion for sustainable development, not only environmentally but also economically and socially, as they enable the rehabilitation of marginal areas and the work of farmers.
So Sicilian ancient grains can play a strategic role in combating the environmental and social challenges we face today. They can delight our senses with their primitive character perceivable in baked goods, pasta and traditional dishes of this wonderful region that is Sicily.