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TREND: The modern appeal of ancient grains

Ancient and heirloom grains and seeds have fed us for millennia — from Red Fife wheat and emmer, to spelt, barley and quinoa — and they're back on the menu.

©Cinda Chavich


There’s no doubt that wheat has had a rough ride in recent years, with the no-carb, low-carb and gluten-free movements all but eclipsing our daily bread traditions.

But we’ve learned a bit about modern wheat and its earliest origins as a result. And today the buzz is all about those ancient grains — think Red Fife wheat, spelt, emmer and einkorn, rye, barley and quinoa ­— cereals and seeds that have literally fed people around the globe for millennia.

Some food trend watchers have even put ancient grains on this year’s top ten list. Grain is suddenly glamorous, with whole grain artisan breads, chewy spelt pasta and healthy grain bowls popping up on modern menus.

And with consumers still hunkered down, cooking from scratch at home and stocking their pantries with local ingredients, you may hear more about these healthy whole grains, heirlooms that promise nutrition, flavour, and a direct connection to small BC farms.


Wheat has long been a commodity crop in Canada, grown in the prairie “grain belt” for export, and milled in just a handful of large, commercial flourmills.

Over the last 50 years, scientists have hybridized wheat, to design a modern variety that’s best for industrial agriculture, milling and bread production. But many ancient grains, including wheat’s original ancestors, are still grown around the world, with farmers now planting these crops here, too.

Grain guru and seed saving pioneer Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds, sells an impressive array of heritage wheat, rye and barley seed and is the author of Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds, the definitive local tome on the topic.

Whether it’s Red Fife, “the grandma of Canadian wheat”, spelt, emmer, khorasan, or einkorn, many of these wheat varieties can be traced back thousands of years.

Growing grain is as easy as planting grass, Jason says, “just don’t mow it.” A 10- by 15-foot (3- by 4.5-m) plot can yield an impressive 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of whole grain.

“When we grow ancient wheat organically in our own gardens, we restore it to the original role it has in nourishing us,” he adds, “as a healthy whole food to be eaten in the simplest of ways.”


Though gluten intolerance has become a widely reported health problem in North America, true celiac disease affects less than one per cent of the population.

Celiacs can safely enjoy ancient pseudo-cereals including quinoa, amaranth, teff and millet (grains which are naturally gluten free), while many who have difficulty digesting modern wheat, can tolerate earlier species, especially when the grains are grown organically.

“To this day, I have never met anyone who can’t tolerate einkorn,” says Bruce Stewart, owner of True Grain Bread in Cowichan Bay, which specializes in stone-ground, organic, BC-grown grains, breads and pastries.

This may be because modern wheat has been bred to increase its gluten (protein) content for industrial milling, baking and pasta production. Ancient wheat varieties contain gluten, too, just less of it and in a more digestible form.

But both Stewart and Jason say there may be other reasons why so many people can’t eat modern wheat — the production of most flour, for one, says Stewart.

Commercially milled flour is a highly processed product. The grain is stripped of both it’s germ and bran when milled to produce white flour, often bleached with chemicals, bulked up with maturing and dough conditioning agents, and always “enriched” with the nutrients removed in manufacturing. Even flour labeled “whole wheat” is not whole, but rather refined white flour with some of the bran added back.

“We need to understand Article 13 of the Canadian food labeling laws, regarding what is added to flour,” Stewart says, noting regulations state that flour can contain a dozen chemical additives without any indication on the label.

Jason also points to chemical fertilizers and herbicides as a potential reason for wheat intolerance. Today, most grain farmers in Canada and the US spray their non-organic crops with glyphosate (Round Up) just before harvest to desiccate the crop and increase yields, a practice that’s become widespread over the last 20 years.

“So could it be that, instead of gluten intolerance, many people are actually struggling with glyphosate intolerance?” asks Jason, noting people eating organic and unsprayed grains (such as those grown in Europe) report far fewer digestive issues.


Victoria’s artisan bakers are on the leading edge of the ancient grain curve, sourcing organic, heritage grains and milling fresh flour for their hearty, handmade loaves.

Artisan bread from Fry's Bakery in Victoria is made with freshly milled organic grain (Cinda Chavich photo)

So if you’re looking for ancient whole grains and flour, the best source is a local miller. Nootka Rose Mill in Metchosin mills organic flour for Fry’s and Wild Fire bakeries, and True Grain in Cowichan Bay mills for its own bakeries and others. Both offer stone-ground flours and whole grain kernels to cook or grind at home, including Red Fife, spelt, khorasan, emmer, einkorn and even Island-grown, organic wheat.

Anita’s Organic Mill in Chilliwack also has a full line of whole, organic ancient grains and flours, sold through supermarkets and online, or you can order heritage grains and flours, each traceable to a specific Canadian farm, though The Flourist in Vancouver.

Fieldstone Organics in Armstrong is the source of much of BC’s organically grown ancient grain, and sells it to millers, bakers and direct to consumers, along with a good selection of home milling equipment.

And for a complete line of locally-produced, ancient grain pastas there’s the Cowichan Pasta Company, offering dried pasta products and frozen ravioli made with stone-ground spelt, khorasan, emmer and durum semolina from the True Grain mill.


A revelation for me is how easy it is to cook whole grains.

Simply boiled, like pasta, in plenty of salted water, most whole grains are ready to eat in less than an hour, without any pre-soaking or other special preparation.

“Most people in North America have forgotten or perhaps have never known that grains and seeds can be cooked as the whole foods they are,” says Jason. “You don’t need to mill, pearl or roll them — just cook them to get all their goodness.”

Whole wheat berries are a good source of protein in plant-based diets, with twice the fibre of brown rice and a low glycemic index for diabetics.

But they’re more than simply healthy — they’re delicious. Serve whole cooked grains with a lemony vinaigrette in salads, tossed with butter and fresh herbs as a side dish, or in grain bowls, topped with a variety or hot and cold foods.

Whole grains and stone-ground pastas stand up to earthy and assertive flavours — combine with sautéed mushrooms, garlic, leeks or caramelized onions, spicy sausage, aged cheeses, toasted nuts or pesto. Add cooked grains to bread or muffin recipes. When sprouted, whole grains are great in salads, sandwiches and stir-fries.

It’s the nuances of flavour and texture than make exploring the world of ancient grains appealing for curious cooks.

Einkorn is the oldest of the ancestral wheats, dating back 10,000 years. It’s still grown in the Basque region of Spain and in southern France where it’s called petit epeautre.

Italians grow emmer and spelt, known as farro, and in China, millet is the ancient grain of choice. Bulgur, a cracked and steamed wheat, is the ‘instant’ version of the whole grain (look for the coarse version for perfect pilafs or fine for tabbouleh salad), while freekehis a green, roasted wheat popular in Arab countries. The slow-cooked Jewish Sabbath stew, cholent, is a one-pot wonder of beef, beans and barley. Buckwheat groats (called kasha, when roasted) is popular in Eastern European cuisine, including mushroom pilafs and kasha-filled cabbage rolls.

But the easiest way to enjoy any whole grain is to swap it for rice in recipes, whether for whole grain risottos or as a base for sauces and stews. To speed up weekday meals, you can precook whole grains and refrigerate them for several days, or package and freeze.


Ancient grains have been dubbed the new “super foods” which is ironic, as humans have literally consumed grains since the earliest agrarians began harvesting cereal crops. Grain is a staple food in every culture — wheat, rice and corn being the most common foods on Earth. There’s evidence that humans were eating cereals and seeds some 75,000 years ago, with emmer and einkorn discovered from the early Neolithic period, around 10,000 BCE.

Whole grains are nutritious, easy to store and inexpensive. It’s another way to put healthy whole food on the plate, drilling down into the origins of a ubiquitous ingredient like flour, while supporting local farms.

Whole grains may have had their heyday in the crunchy granola era of the 1960s, but they have new cachet today —an ancient gift to the modern world.


  • Though unnecessary, soaking chewy whole grains for 8 hours helps them plump and cook faster. Most grains triple in volume when cooked.

  • Treat whole grains like pasta. Boil 6-8 cups of salted water in a large pot, add 1 cup whole grains and simmer uncovered, on medium-low heat until tender (about 30-50 minutes, depending on the dryness of the grain). Drain and use immediately, or refrigerate.

  • Otherwise, add 1 cup of whole grain to 2.5 cups of salted, boiling water or broth, cover and simmer on low heat for 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat and steam, covered, for an additional 10 minutes. Whole grains cook faster, in about 20 minutes, in a pressure cooker.

  • ·Delve deeper into the topic of ancient grains with one of the great books on the topic including Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds by Dan Jason and Michele Genest (Douglas & McIntrye); Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press); and Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution by Roxana Jullipat (W.W. Norton & Co.)

©Cinda Chavich



Use any pre-cooked whole grain in this recipe — einkorn or farro are good candidates — and top with cooked sausage or roasted vegetables, if desired.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup white wine

3-4 cups cooked whole grains, cooled (see sidebar)

½ cup chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and cook the onion over medium heat until starting to brown. Add the garlic and cook together for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring up any browned bits, then add the grain and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted.

Add the chicken broth and stir until absorbed, then add the cream and butter. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then remove from heat and mix in the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste and serve. Serves 4.


In Italy, ancient grains including spelt, emmer and einkorn are known as farro, and farro soup is a specialty in Tuscany where much of this grain is grown. This hearty bowl makes a savoury supper that’s rich in protein and fibre.

4 thick slices smoky bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

3 large carrots, peeled and diced

4 stalks celery, diced

½ pound white or brown mushrooms, cleaned and diced

3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

¾ cup farro (pearled whole ancient grains such as spelt, emmer and/or einkorn)

½ cup white wine

3 tablespoons brandy

1 teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1½ cups cooked white beans (rinsed and drained, if canned)

8-10 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock

salt to taste

2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley

In a large soup pot, sauté the chopped bacon in the olive oil over medium heat until it’s starting to crisp. Stir in the chopped onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms and continue to cook, stirring, until he vegetable are tender and starting to brown.

Stir in the garlic and farro and cook for 2 minutes, then add the white wine and brandy. Continue to cook together, until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the thyme and the beans.

Add about 8 cups of the stock to the pan, bring to a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for 35-45 minutes, until the vegetables and grains are tender. You may need to add additional broth to obtain the right consistency.

Season the soup with salt to taste, then stir in the fresh parsley. Serve immediately or chill overnight to meld the flavours, then reheat. Serves 6-8.


Here’s a whole grain dessert recipe from Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds by food writer Michele Genest and heirloom seed expert Dan Jason (Harbour Publishing).

2 cups water

2/3 cup raw barley

1⅓ cups milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 Tbsp butter, melted

1 tsp pure almond extract

¼ cup organic brown sugar

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp anise or fennel seeds

½ cup (chopped dried apricots


½ cup 35 percent cream, whipped

2 Tbsp toasted slivered almonds

In a saucepan, combine water and barley and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and reduce heat to low, simmer until barley is soft but still chewy, about 45 minutes. Drain excess water. Grease an 8-inch (20-cm) square baking pan and preheat oven to 325 F (160 C).

Beat together the milk, eggs, butter, almond extract, sugar, salt and anise seeds. Stir in cooked barley and apricots. Pour into prepared baking pan and set inside a larger baking pan. Fill larger pan with enough hot water come halfway up sides of baking pan.

Bake for 55 minutes, then remove the custard pan from the water and bake for another 5 minutes. When the pudding is done, a knife inserted in the centre should come out clean. Serve warm or cold, topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. Serves 6-8.


Anita’s Organic Mill produces a variety of ancient grain flours at its facility in Chilliwack, and offers tips and recipes for using ancient grains on their website,

350 g Anita’s Organic All Purpose Flour

140 g Anita’s Organic Stone Ground Spelt Flour

300 g water

¼ tsp instant yeast

11g salt

30 g maple syrup

60 g pecans, roughly chopped

8 sage leaves, chopped

Combine yeast and water, then mix remaining ingredients until no dry bits remain. Transfer to an oiled container and let rise overnight (10-12 hours) until doubled in size.

Scrape dough out onto a lightly floured counter taking care not to deflate it. Shape by stretching each side up and pressing it down into the center of the dough.

Place seam side down in a cloth-lined bowl that has been thoroughly dusted with rice flour to prevent sticking.

Allow the shaped dough to rise for 1 hour. Meanwhile set the oven to 500 degrees F and place around cast iron dutch oven into the oven while it preheats.

Tip the dough out onto a square of parchment and place the dough and parchment into the preheated dutch oven. Bake with the lid on for 20 minutes.

Reduce the heat to 450 degrees F and remove the lid. Bake an additional 10-15 minutes until dark brown and crusty. Makes 1 loaf.


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