What's In A Name?
Risotto – pronounced [ɾiˈzɔtːo]
a classic Italian dish of rice cooked in wine and stock to a naturally creamy consistency; traditionally made with high-starch, short grain rice varieties; the grains are usually toasted in butter and oil before liquid is added gradually; to finish finely grated parmesan cheese is stirred in
Rice is the key to risotto really; it's in the name and everything…
Riso is rice. And -tto is, well, the rest of it!
But recently we made a delicious risotto-like dish using pearl spelt. Can't call that risotto!
Sharpham Park call their pearl spelt products speltotto but I like the idea of sticking to an Italianate name and have plumped for farrotto.
When Sharpham Park asked me if we'd like to try their spelt products, it was initially the spelt flour that drew me to say yes. Pete is a great baker and has been baking ever better bread since we went on the Tom Herbert course earlier this year. The first spelt bread he made on receiving the Sharpham Park samples was a little heavy but with nice flavour.
Some people who have a mild form of coeliac disease (an allergy or intolerance to gluten) have found they can digest spelt with less difficulty than regular wheat. This isn't because spelt has less gluten but is down to the molecular structure of the protein within spelt; it is shorter than in other cultivated wheat species and that's what makes it easier for the human digestive system to break down.
Those same properties mean you can't knead it as hard nor create as stretchy a dough. And it also has a lower absorption rate, meaning it needs less water to be added to achieve a workable dough. All this means that bakers must work differently when baking with spelt. Since his first attempt, Pete's been working on adapting his recipes, kneading and proving times to suit spelt flour.
Spelt is an ancient species of wheat. During the bronze age, it spread widely across Europe and was an important staple through to medieval times.
Reading about the evolution of spelt is fascinating, not least because of a parallel speciation theory that the hybridisation between domesticated wheat and wild goat grasses that created spelt may have happened not once but twice, independently in Asia and in Europe. Alternate theory states that spelt developed just once in the Middle East and was spread East and West to Europe and Asia by human cultivation.
Spelt fell out of favour because it has a tough, thick husk surrounding the kernel which makes it harder to separate the husk from the grain. It also has a lower yield per acre than newer varieties.
But it survived as a relict crop in northern Spain and central Europe (and also in the wild, I would imagine).
More recently, there has been a renewed interest in spelt for a number of different reasons.
I've already mentioned the increased market for spelt amongst some sufferers of coeliac disease. This is not the only segment of the health food market to show interest. Nutritionists claim that the nutrients in spelt are more "bioavailable", that is more readily accessed and absorbed by the body during digestion, than in other wheats. Spelt is higher in protein than regular wheat, and is also a good source of zinc, complex B vitamins and riboflavin, the latter considered to reduce the frequency of migraines in sufferers.
The Romans referred to spelt as "Marching Grain" because of its high energy content.
There are also advantages for the farmer. Unlike modern varieties, spelt can grow well on poor soil – sandy or with poor drainage. It also requires less fertiliser than other varieties as its tough husk protects it from insects, which makes it particularly popular with organic farmers. That same tough husk also makes spelt grain more resistant to storage problems.
Chicken & Pea Farrotto With Braised Gem Lettuce
Spelt has a lovely nutty flavour, a little like wild rice. It works really well in a risotto-like dish and the cooking method is the same.
Large knob of butter
120 grams pearled spelt per person
1 generous handful leftover roast chicken meat per person, chopped
1 small handful of peas, chopped mangetouts and/ or chopped sugarsnaps, per person
500 ml chicken stock per person
Ingredients (Braised Gem Lettuce)
Half a gem lettuce per person
Chicken stock to braise (see below)
Note: Amounts are approximate and can be varied by quite a large amount, according to what you have available. We used a selection of peas, harvested from the garden and leftover meat and stock from the previous night's meal. The lettuce was also home-grown. Add water to the stock, if you don't have enough.
- Wash the lettuce, chop the peas and leftover chicken and set aside.
- Put the stock on to heat.
- Fry the dry pearled spelt in butter for a couple of minutes, then add the warm stock bit by bit, letting it absorb into the grains before adding more.
- Whilst the farrotto is cooking, cut the gem lettuces in half along their length, and place in a shallow baking dish. Add stock to come up about half way up the sides of the lettuce and bake in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes.
- Once the spelt is cooked (soft but not mushy), with a little excess liquid in the pan, tip in the meat and peas and stir through until piping hot. The chicken will absorb the extra liquid and result in a thick, untuous finish.
- Serve with braised lettuce over each portion.
We absolutely loved the pearled spelt in place of the usual risotto rice and will definitely be making this dish again, as well as other farrotto recipes.