There is no official definition of ancient grains but it is widely accepted to mean grains which have remained unchanged for several hundreds of years. As opposed to more widespread cereals such as corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat, which are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding. Other grains largely ignored until recently by Western palates (such as sorghum, teﬀ, millet, and quinoa, amaranth) would also be widely considered as ancient grains as are heirloom varieties of more common grains such as red and black rice. Finally less common grains, like buckwheat, or wild rice, may also be included.
For many years archaeologists have reported finding the remains of grains and grain stores in ancient sites. For example researchers in China found the remains of charred wheat and millet in Yunnan that are thought to be nearly 4,000 years old! Other ancient grains were simply not know by the west until recently but were staples for thousands of years in communities the world over as they began settling in one place and forsaking their nomadic life. Finally some grains were simply 'forgotten' for centuries such as Kamut® Khorasan wheat which was only kept alive as an optional side crop sown by small farmers in Turkey and Egypt and only rediscovered in 1949.
Ancient grains are often free from gluten or low in gluten making them suitable for people with gluten intolerances or sensitivities. They have a nutritional profile favourable to refined grains.
Many ancient grains thrive with lower levels of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, making them ideal for organic production and an attractive choice to consumers who choose to shop with their carbon footprint and sustainability in mind.
Amaranth - a grain, used by the Aztecs, which is both gluten and wheat-free and is a source of vitamin C. One of the earliest known food plants, Amaranth was cultivated by the Aztecs and the Incas. (One of the best-known varieties is called Inca wheat.) It is often called a "pseudo-grain" and has been referred to as both an herb and a vegetable. Amaranth is a highly nutritious and gluten free grain, and is unusual in that it offers a complete form of vegetable protein. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast porridge, Amaranth can also be added to soups, salads and stir-fries, and amaranth flour can be used in baking. Called the “mother of all grains” by the Incas, who considered it sacred
Kamut® Khorasan Wheat has a nutty flavour, is high in fibre and protein but contains gluten so is not suitable for coeliacs. It is a distant relative to modern wheat believed to have originated in the time of King Tut and rediscovered in 1949, by a US Airman called Earl Dedman. It is a non-hybridized grain with a natural sweetness, which makes it a great grain for baking.
Millet - a small, gluten free whole grain or seed which is a staple in many Asian and African countries but is often associated with bird food! It is one of the earliest cultivated crops and has a mild sweet, nut-like flavour. Whole cooked millet can be served as a side dish or added to soups and depending on the cooking style the texture can range from fluffy to creamy.
Spelt - commonly eaten in medieval times, spelt is part of the wheat family and is high in protein and fibre. The official name of is Triticum aestivum var. spelta. It was originally grown in Iran around 5000 to 6000 B.C., but it has been grown in Europe for over 300 years. This distant cousin of wheat contains gluten and is therefore not suitable for those who have gluten intolerance, though it does tend to be easier to digest than wheat and may be better tolerated by those who have wheat sensitivity. Spelt is a tasty whole grain with a nutty flavour. You can use spelt flour in baking, and the grain can be found in a variety of products, including cereals, breads, pasta and crackers.
Quinoa (Pronounced "keen-wah") - perhaps the best known ancient grain, quinoa is a complete protein since it has all nine essential amino acids and is free from gluten. It has been cultivated at altitudes of well over 10,000 feet and has been considered a superfood for at least a few millennia. First cultivated more than 5,000 years ago, quinoa, along with corn and potatoes was one of the three foods considered the centrepiece of the Andean diet. Its immense popularity was due to several reasons: It was one of few crops that could survive in such high altitudes (10,000 – 20,000 feet above sea level). It could withstand frost, intense sun and the often drought conditions that characterized the Andean climate. It can be served as a side dish or added to soups and salads.
Buckwheat is not actually a type of wheat, it is a seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel. The triangular seeds it produces are known as buckwheat groats, are the hulled grains of buckwheat. Its first record as a cultivated crop appears circa 4000 B.C. in the Balkan region of Europe. Buckwheat groats are often used whole in hot cereals and soups while the famous French galletes are made using buckwheat flour.
Farro (or emmer wheat). Also called Pharaoh’s wheat, this chewy, nutty-tasting grain is a relative of modern wheat that originated in Egypt thousands of years ago. It is also said to have been widely consumed by the Roman legions, and in Italy today it’s a common ingredient in soups. It contains gluten but is easier to digest than the modern wheat varieties.
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