Gabriele Bonci, einkorn wheat – bearded man holding a very large round bread decorated with incisions.
Photo by the author.
Life

The Baker Growing Ancient Grains from Prehistoric Times

Low in gluten and high in protein, einkorn wheat is thought to have been one of the first cereals grown by mankind.
Andrea Strafile
Rome, IT
April 29, 2021, 10:41am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

If you’ve never heard of einkorn wheat, you’re definitely not alone. This ancient cereal is so old it was even found in the stomach of Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Italian Alps and perfectly preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. 

The history of einkorn wheat started about 30,000 years ago during the Palaeolithic period. Archaeologists have found evidence of the crop being harvested around that time in northern Syria. According to a 2011 study, it was cultivated in the traditional sense in southern Turkey about 10,000 years ago. 

Since then, einkorn has all but disappeared from our fields and our tables. Named after the German word meaning “single grain”, this primordial wheat has a far lower yield than popular modern wheat, typically producing only 300kg per hectare while the latter produces around 2500kg. Einkorn is also a shorter plant, making it harder for agricultural machines to harvest.

But in spite of its shortcomings, einkorn wheat also has benefits – it is low in gluten and rich in protein while retaining a full, complex and delicious taste. That’s why Rome-based star baker Gabriele Bonci, famous for his show Pizza Hero on the Italian Discovery Plus channel, has been obsessed with the grain for the past 14 years.

Gabriele Bonci, einkorn wheat – a hand holding an einkorn wheat ear in a green field. The arm is tattooed.

An einkorn wheat ear. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

“Einkorn is a cereal with outstanding properties,” Bonci says. “Fourteen percent of the gene is made up of different proteins and it has practically no gluten.” This makes it a great option for those on a low gluten or gluten-free diet who still want to enjoy eating something that still has the texture and flavour of bread. Bonci says that compared to regular wheat, einkorn is also more nutritious: rich in carotenoids, unsaturated fats, vitamin E and iron.

But making bread with low-gluten flour comes with its own challenges, since gluten formation during the kneading process is key to giving a loaf its light and airy texture. “For optimal results, we’ve worked on different saline solutions and a hard spelt sourdough to make it rise," Bonci said. “After so much research, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to make excellent bread from that cereal. My dream is to make everything with einkorn wheat." Bonci currently also uses it to make plum cakes, soaking biscuits, pizza and even pastiera, a sweet cheese pie from Naples typically eaten for Easter.

Gabriele Bonci, einkorn wheat – foreground: a brown paper bag full of seeds. Background: man crossing his tattooed arms.

Einkorn wheat seeds can also be used as a salad topping. Photo by the author.

To make his baking dreams come true, Bonci had to source einkorn wheat from somewhere – and the grain is not exactly widely available wholesale. So he decided to go all-in and buy land 50km outside of Rome on the Arcinazzo plateau, much of which is over 800 metres above sea level, on which to grow the crop himself. To make the flour, he partnered up with a local mill, Mulino Marino.

Although not prolific, Bonci says einkorn requires little water and is naturally resistant to a number of common crop parasites. Its small yield makes it incompatible with large-scale agricultural production, something Bonci has fully embraced on his high-altitude plot.

Gabriele Bonci, einkorn wheat – man with gray hair and beard, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, kneeling in a field.

Gabriele Bonci in his einkorn wheat field. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Some of the genetic mutations encouraged in order to make modern wheat more bountiful and easier to harvest had unintended side effects. During the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, American agronomist Norman Borlaug helped develop a new high-yielding variety of wheat. For this achievement, he won a Nobel Prize and was credited with saving billions of people from starvation.

But studies have also linked this new type of wheat with critical depletion of nutrients in the soil. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, soil degradation could lead to the end of farming as we know it within the next 60 years

Moreover, the recent spike in people experiencing gluten intolerance has led some scientists to believe modern wheat might be triggering people’s immune systems, making them experience symptoms similar to those who’ve been diagnosed with wheat allergy. This is as yet unproven, with one 2020 study finding no evidence of a change in the immunoreactivity of wheat as a result of cultivation, though the researchers conceded that their sample group was limited and have invited more scientists to look into the issue.

In any case, Bonci sees his einkorn wheat project as an act of subversive agriculture. “For us, working with einkorn wheat means adopting a business approach that does not purely follow profit, but also the logic of nature and health,” Bonci said. “Italy is covered in a giant expanse of wheat – a type of wheat that has shown us the worst side of agriculture."