Another ancient grain is roaring back to life in the city’s Greenmarkets and restaurants -- and this one is grown by farmers right here in our very own state. Emmer, the sweet, robust grain that adds dreamy texture to any soup or salad, grinds into a fine flour used in pasta and bread, and makes an incredible pilaf or hot cereal all on its own, is taking its well-deserved place in the spotlight. In just the latest example, Gramercy Tavern Executive Chef Michael Anthony is featuring emmer grown by Cayuga Pure Organics, a farm located in the Finger Lakes region, in the soup he created for Hale and Hearty and being served in its restaurants this week (12/10/12-12/16/12).
Emmer, called farro in Italy, is among the oldest forms of wheat. Its cultivation dates back 10,000 years to ancient Egypt and Israel, where it was used to make matzoh as well as leavened bread, pasta and beer. It gradually fell out of favor because emmer seed has to go through an extra step after it’s threshed called dehulling, which removes the seed from its hull, or husk. It was replaced by wheats that broke free from their hulls in the threshing process, like modern bread wheat and durum wheat (commonly used for pasta). Thankfully farmers throughout Europe, Turkey, and Ethiopia still appreciate emmer’s special qualities and grow it aplenty.
The hardy crop hit American soil in the late 19th century, when German farmers migrating from Russia planted it in settlements across the northern plains of North Dakota and Montana. The USDA quickly spotted its merits: Not only was it extraordinarily high in protein and fiber content, but it proved remarkably tolerant to extreme weather, assuring a harvest even when the wheat crops failed.
Emmer found its way to this region in 2009, when organic farmers in North Dakota who were willing to share this potentially high-value crop relatively new to the U.S. -- which they alone possessed – sent a seed shipment to organic growers in New York and Pennsylvania. The momentous hand-over was part of a USDA-funded collaboration among farmers, crop scientists and sustainable agriculture advocates (Greenmarket) intent on introducing farmers and consumers to this new-old grain.
The group also hopes to clear the confusion people have between emmer, spelt and farro -- which has long frustrated farmers and researchers. In a rare show of annoyance, a 1911 USDA report cited the necessity “to protest strongly against the use of incorrect names for emmer.” Now that chefs in our region have their very own source of home-grown emmer -- no need to import farro from Italy anymore! -- they are only beginning to discover the subtle differences between this hardy grain from the plains, and the crop of the same species that took another path to the Mediterranean, acclimating to Italian conditions over the years.
Cayuga Pure Organics began selling emmer at Greenmarket, where it has been embraced by regional grain enthusiasts, including Chef Anthony. Chef Patti Jackson, late of I Trulli, made a memorable emmer pasta at a regional grains tasting in 2010 that folks are still raving about. With its rise in popularity, you can expect emmer to pop up more and more on menus around the city. You’ll surely see it in a range of forms, whether the whole grain, a bag of flour, a loaf of bread, fresh pasta or flatbreads. At some point in the not-too-distant future you might even be toasting an emmer beer or savoring an emmer whiskey cocktail.