Ingredients… time-old cheerleaders for free passage, trade and export
This particular tale is of a small ancient Egyptian grain: hard and glassy like amber with the nickname ‘Pharaoh’s Wheat’ that found itself in Abruzzo Italy after trade, migration and a mass genocide.
Saragolla began its journey in Egypt where it was known as ‘soul of the earth’. Tall and lanky this dependable ancestor of modern wheat tolerated arid lands, rust and pests; it became a crop on the move through the trade routes of Mesopotamia, Iran and up to the Anatolia peninsula, helping mothers to feed their children and fathers to trade.
There are claims of saragolla making its way across the Adriatic in 400 AD but its ‘official’ arrival came with Alcek’s Bulgars in 632 AD. The previous winter he and 7000 of his people had journeyed to Bavaria at the invite of the Frankish King who had ruthlessly planned their mass execution over the winter by his troops.
Alcek and 700 men, women and children managed to escape, approaching the Lombards with a request for help. In return for their labour, the Lombards allowed them to settle in The Abruzzi, in what is now Isernia in Molise. Their lore and language entwined itself in local culture and the dialect included their word Saragolla (sarga-yellow and golyo-seed) for the ancient grain.
This ‘foreign’ wheat cast its spell over Italy’s regional states aided by the Lombards and monastic elements of the Church. Each state cherished its fragrance, so tasty when used as cracked wheat or ground to produce a ‘nutritious’ flour that makes superb bread and pasta, heartening the greyest of lives with its glorious golden colour.
At a time when cucina povera was food to get by rather than a fashionable trend in cooking, the benefits of eating saragolla were considerable. It’s quicker to cook thus requiring less fuel and contains 18% protein compared to the 12% standard of today’s modified Croesus durum wheat. What would be the advice of Italy’s contadini and subsistence farmers to the growing numbers of wheat-intolerant in Italy and across the world? Perhaps they would suggest a return to a simpler low gluten wheat, like saragolla – just 10% compared to the 17% of northern American Manitoba wheat which means it is slower to digest, making bellies feel fuller for longer.
Saragolla’s heydey lasted until the nineteenth century when cropping systems began to change and a pre-occupation with yields and easy milling were paramount. Abruzzo’s unique topography and winding roads meant that Saragolla continued to be grown by communities in the hilly Apennine terrain of the province of Teramo. Their ongoing cultivation, selecting the best seeds each year, meant that a premium heritage stock of Saragolla was ready and waiting for a resurgence.
The revival of the Pharaoh’s Wheat has been fast, brought about those looking not just for a tasty pasta that won’t cause bloating but also from farmers seeking a sustainable wheat with high yields that doesn’t require pesticides and chemical fertilisers in a time of increasing droughts. Today the ‘Pharaoh’s Wheat’ is back at the top of the table, the fettuccine of choice at the London Embassy in London, organically grown and made by Imperiale d’Abruzzo and proudly being served by its head chef, Abruzzese Danilo Cortellini. More than impressive when considering the choice of pasta an Italian Embassy can draw upon.