The Italian connection: Farro piccolo, an ancient wheat grain from Italy, returns to the Lowcountry
It was early in the morning when we went to hand-thresh wheat from a field just off Savannah Highway. The stalks were easily waist high.
The backdrop was a fulsome creek of vivid blue water and a tree harboring so many egrets they looked from afar like magnolias in full bloom.
Climbing up the ditch to the wheat was a bit arduous, and pushing through the stalks to gather them as they were scythed in bunches, then carried back across the ditch to stack them, was a bit like slogging through mud.
After a while, I asked to cut the grains myself, gingerly holding the scythe and a bit fearful that a broad swoop would bring it full circle to slice my legs.
Not a worry, it seemed, as my attempts to cut it were so feeble a full circle would be impossible.
My leg was safe.
The kind of wheat was farro, one of Italy’s oldest grains. It is increasingly making its way to tables across the United States, driven in part by health-conscious consumers.
And here in our state, Columbia-based Anson Mills, Clemson University and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture have begun experimenting with growing farro in the Lowcountry.
Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills and organizer of the threshing expedition, took an interest in farro more than a decade ago. Anson Mills began growing different cultivars of the three types of farro: piccolo, medio and grande (meaning small, medium and large).
According to Roberts, a food historian and ardent supporter of heirloom agriculture, Charleston’s first rice farmers were Italian. They brought farro with them for winter cover cropping in the new rice fields. They grazed their cattle over the farro before harvesting the grain.
An interesting similarity between farro and Arborio rice is that when cooked, both release a starch that helps the ingredients bind together.
On our threshing day, the muffled sound of cars on the highway provided contrast to the primitive activity. Not much had changed, and yet everything had. (Usually, a more modern method is used to gather and thresh the wheat, machines that take the place of arms and legs.)
I began to understand my earliest introduction to this kind of field, the Old Testament, and why gleaning, going back into the field and gathering the wheat and grains that had fallen, was turned over to the poor as a gesture of charity. It was hard work as well, perhaps not worth paying for as the yield would be small.
I felt transported back to those times, and thought about this same process being carried on for 10,000 years.
A fire was lit in a large metal can as we prepared to fire-thresh the farro. We lit the stalks, then pounded them in the can to extract the grain, which are small brown kernels. The firing accents the flavor the of the farro as well as expedites its removal from the stalks.
This particular farro was a variety of the piccolo type. It’s part of a broad classification of wheat that includes emmer, durum wheat, spelt and einkorn. Today, Anson Mills is the only grower of farro piccolo in the United States.
Using, buying farro
Harvested in the summer, farro complements vegetables coming into season at the same time. It has a nutty flavor and chewy texture similar to barley that can be a healthy substitute for rice, quinoa or other grains in side dishes, soups or salads. Farro may be cooked as a whole grain or cracked grain.
Using, buying farro
Nutritionally, farro is high in fiber and protein and low in fat and calories. It’s considered an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that can stimulate the immune system, regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol.
Farro also contains vitamin B3, or niacin, which helps in metabolism, and is a good source of zinc, magnesium and iron.
Anson Mills sells its farro through its website, ansonmills.com. Anson’s farro also is stocked by the Glass Onion restaurant, 1219 Savannah Highway. Other brands of farro may be found at grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Earth Fare.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.
Video Recipe of the Week Anson Mills Plain and Simple Farro
Serves 1-2 as a side
Video Recipe of the Week
Anson Mills Plain and Simple Farro
The simplest method of cooking farro results in a nutty-flavored grain able to hold its own without mushiness, offering texture and flavor. — Nathalie Dupree
1/3 cup farro
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bring the farro and water just to a boil in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Quickly lower the heat to simmer until the farro is just tender, about 15 minutes. Add the salt about half way through. Remove from the heat and let the farro cool in the saucepan. Drain in a fine-holed footed colander and shake lightly to dry.
Note: Anson Mills uses fine sea salt and bottled water.