The Roger Saul Interview: All About Spelt
Roger has come out with a book devoted completely to spelt. There is much to learn and we are thrilled to have it on our reference shelf – and in the kitchen with us. Here we chat with him about this amazing grain.
Dédé Wilson: Roger, thank you so much for speaking with us. Your book is wonderful. You have taken an ancient ingredient and made it new. There is confusion about spelt and you are just the person to help us sift through the information. In particular I find that depending on what you read, it is said to be related to wheat, but then again sometimes I read that it is not. We need you to set us straight!
Roger Saul: Spelt is an ancient grain and it is related to wheat; it’s an ancient hybrid of goat grass and emmer wheat, first recorded about 7000 years ago, but I suspect much older. In England we know it was grown extensively in The Iron age and in fact was found in the Glastonbury lake village archeological dig not more than a few miles from Sharpham. However it bears very little similarity to the kind of wheat most people eat today.
And then there is the confusion about its gluten content and whether those that are wheat intolerant can eat it. Or celiac…
Spelt does contain gluten but its structure is very different to the gluten found in modern wheat. Many of our wheat intolerant customers find it is easier to digest, as the gluten is far more brittle, therefore more easily digestible, so it’s a good option for them. Modern wheat has undergone thousands of hybridizations to increase yield and change the quantity and quality of the gluten content. Spelt, on the other hand, is an ancient grain which hasn’t undergone this process. There has been and still is a massive amount of confusion between wheat intolerance and gluten intolerance. Spelt seems to be suitable for those with wheat intolerance, which can manifest itself in many ways from irritable bowel syndrome, to chronic illness, or simply headaches, runny nose and bloating. In the UK it is thought that 1 in 6 or 8 people suffer from it. Gluten intolerance is far more serious and you need to be tested to find out if you have this illness, in the UK again it is thought that 1 in 120 have this disease. Far more research needs to be carried out in this area for us to fully understand what intolerances have been caused by crop sprays, modern food processes, modern crop hybridization and so on.
Now let’s get to the fun part. Tell me why you love spelt’s taste and texture…the properties it brings to baked goods in particular.
Spelt really is a cook’s best friend. It’s ideal for making bread and cakes and it can also make pastry and biscuits with a wonderful, crisp texture. The nutty flavor of spelt is delicious and the flour behaves in much the same way as wheat, so you don’t need to learn any new techniques to bake with it, just be prepared for it to vary a bit from what you are used to. Experiment!
And I notice that you use various types of spelt…white, whole grain, flakes…can you talk a little bit about these various forms. What does each bring to baking?
At Sharpham Park we make organic White, Wholegrain, Seeded, Spelt and Rye and Baker’s Blend flour (a blend of white and wholegrain spelt flour to bake the perfect loaf). We’ve just added organic grain to our range, ( You call grain berries, I think ) this can be added to salads, soups and casseroles and pearled spelt for a tasty, high fibre carbohydrate. To make Organic Pearled Spelt we polish off the outer layer of bran so the grain can be used as a substitute to rice or added to dishes where it soaks up flavor, chefs and cooks alike love this form as it is so easy to cook with and yet reflects perfectly the flavours of any ingredient from fish to meat to vegetarian.
Finding alternative grains and flours is becoming easier and easier (we like to source bulk options for economy when we can), but once we get them home, what is your recommended storage?
Wholemeal flour ideally needs to be used within 6 months, white flour and grain ideally need to be used within 12 months. It should be stored in a cool dry place, where the temperature remains constant and ideally below 12 degrees celcius. This really is essential as organic flour and grain must not overheat in warm cupboards next to the oven!
The rhubarb traybake is a delicious recipe and it is currently in season, but it’s worth being careful to avoid transferring too much juice so the sponge doesn’t become soggy. For the ‘spelt’ oatcakes once you’ve mastered them plain, you could always add herbs for extra flavor.
We certainly suggest that for those who have not baked much with spelt that they begin with well-tested recipes such as yours. If, however, the home baker wants to incorporate spelt into their own recipes, do you have some tips for us about substitutions?
Spelt flour can be used instead of wheat in almost all recipes but be careful not to overwork the mixture because the gluten structure in spelt is more fragile than wheat flour. Also don’t add too much water when baking bread as it may appear you need more, but you don’t! For cake baking, don’t forget to add a teaspoon of baking powder to white spelt flour so that it rises.
Roger, thank you so much for your time and your wonderful book. We wish you great luck with it and are happy to spread the word.
P.S. There are some amazing health benefits that I have not mentioned above.
- High Fiber, medical research in the UK has shown that a high fiber diet can reduce the risk of bowel cancer significantly, spelt is one of the best grains for this and we work closely with Bowel Cancer UK on this. See our joint website: GreatBritishSpeltrecipes.com
- Slow release energy, this is I think one of the most important attributes of spelt. The Roman Army picked up the idea from their German Hun opponents who fought ferosiously and seemed to have endless energy. They found they ate spelt and adopted the grain as their marching bread. We have had all sorts of sportsman and women who have approached us to use it from cyclists to rowers and more every day, gardeners. Great polar explorer Rannulph Finnes took a sled load of pearled spelt with him to trek to the South Pole.
- Beyond that there are endless health benefits, but I know I will start to bore you, so read the book if you care to!
Consider us schooled! We love learning more about the ingredients we bake with. Thank you so much for your time and the book.