These age-old grains offer unique flavour, texture and nutrition — and a direct connection to small B.C. farms.

by Cinda Chavich

Raw spelt in a bowl

Nataša Mandić/Stocksy

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 food 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 connection to small B.C. 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 flour mills. Over the last 50 years, scientists have hybridized wheat to create 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 co-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, kamut 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 4.5metre) plot can yield an impressive 15 pounds(6.8 kilograms) 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.”

Man sifting grain

Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine


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 TrueGrain Bread in Cowichan Bay, which specializes in stone-ground, organic, B.C.-grown grains and 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 its 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 U.S. spray their non-organic crops with glyphosate (Roundup) 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 that people eating organic and unsprayed grains (such as those grown inEurope) 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.So if you’re looking for ancient whole grains and flour, the best source is a local miller.

Nootka Rose Milling Company in Metchosin mills organic flour for Fry’s and Wildfire bakeries, and True Grain Bread 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, kamut, 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 B.C.’s organically grown ancient grains, and sells these products to millers, bakers and direct to consumers, along with a 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, kamut, emmer and durum semolina from the True Grain mill.

David Fife, the first farmer to grow wheat in Canada in 1842

Source: Wikipedia

DID YOU KNOW? Red Fife is Canada’s oldest wheat. It is named for the colour of its wheat kernel and after David Fife, a farmer in central Ontario, who, in 1842, began growing kernels he received from Scotland.


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, 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 them 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 that 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 épeautre. Italians grow emmer and spelt, known as farro, and in China, millet is the ancient grain of choice.

Freekeh is a delicious grain popular in the Middle East. Try it in a tabbouleh recipe.

Matias Neurbauer/STOCKFOOD

Bulgur, a cracked and steamed wheat, is the “instant” version of the wholegrain (look for the coarse version for perfect pilafs or for tabbouleh salad), while freekeh is 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, often an ingredient in 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 (see page 54) 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.


Whole grains are nutritious, easy to store and inexpensive. It’s another way to put healthy whole food on theplate, while supporting local farms.Whole grains may have had their heyday in the crunchy granola era of the 1960s, but they have newcachet today — an ancient gift to the modern world.

Grain dishes on wood table

Samantha Linsell/STOCKFOOD

Whole Grain Risotto

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

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 medium onion, chopped fine
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/4 cup white wine
• 3 to 4 cups cooked whole grains, cooled (see sidebar on the next page)
• 1/2 cup chicken broth
• 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
• 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 grains 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 with salt and pepper and serve. Serves 4.

How to cook whole grains

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

Treat whole grains like pasta. Boil 6 to 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 to 50 minutes, depending on the dryness of the grain).

Drain and use immediately, or refrigerate.

Another method: Add 1 cup whole grain to 2 1/2 cups salted, boiling water or broth, cover and simmeron low heat for 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat and let 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 subject 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 Jullapat (W.W. Norton & Company).

Farro Soup

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
• 1/2 pound white or brown mushrooms, cleaned and diced
• 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
•3/4 cup farro (pearled whole ancient grains such as spelt, emmer and/or einkorn)
• 1/2 cup white wine
• 3 tablespoons brandy
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
•1 1/2 cups cooked white beans (rinsed and drained, if canned)
• 8 to 10 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
• salt to taste
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped

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 the vegetables 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 to 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 and pepper to taste, then stir in the fresh parsley. Serve immediately or chill overnight to meld the flavours, then reheat.

Serves 6 to 8.

Barley, Almond & Anise Pudding

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

• 2 cups water
• 2/3 cup raw barley
• 1 1/3 cups milk
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1 tablespoon butter, melted
• 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
• 1/4 cup organic brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 tsp anise or fennel seeds
• 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

• Whipped cream
• 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 to 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.