Early Period Grains and Their Uses
We tend to think of early people sitting around the fire eating loads of roasted meat. We underestimate how much of the early diet was composed of grains and grain products. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the grains used in Europe, here is a short description of the major ones.
Much of early period man's nutrition came from grain. Many early grains had a husk so tightly fitted that the only way to remove it was to burn the husk off. This resulted in a toasted grain, which had much better keeping qualities than the untoasted variety. From this, the people produced "grain pastes" by mixing the crushed toasted grain with water to form a sort of dumpling. This could be eaten without baking and was quick to prepare. The toasting made the grain digestible. Grain pastes were a major part of the diet of the poorer classes through Roman times, especially in the cities where the hazard of fire meant that many people could not have a fire in their home. Even today the Tibetan natives mix toasted millet flour with hot tea to form a grain paste. If this idea bothers you, remember that oatmeal is toasted grain slightly cooked.
Leavened bread is said to have originated in Egypt. This may have been because their vast brewing industry yielded the yeast to leaven it, but is probably due more to the development of gluten producing wheat. Barley and millet flours do not leaven well, if at all, which is why barley and millet breads are generally on the stodgy side. Wheat on the other hand contains a starchy endosperm with gluten-forming proteins which combine with the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast. This produces a spongy mass at gas bubbles and elastic dough. When the dough is baked, the proteins become firm and the finished bread has a network of small holes where the gas used to be. If the wheat or flour becomes hot before it is combined with the yeast, the proteins become firm and will not respond to the leavening action of the yeast, therefore leavened bread requires an easily threshed wheat grain. Rye will also support yeast, but not a well as wheat.
In Britain, wheat was brown in drier areas and barley, rye and oats in the wetter ones. As an insurance against crop failure two grains were often planted together, the most common mixture being wheat and rye. This mixed crop was called "maslin" in later periods. By planting crops that did well in both types of conditions, the farmers were fairly well assured that at least one crop would prosper. Without broadleaf weed killers and other modern farming practices, seeds from weeds were included in the harvest adding to the nutrition but changing the taste. Sometimes this resulted in new types of grain being produced for cultivation. Grain mixtures high in weed seeds have been found in the stomachs at bodies found in the bogs of England and northern Europe.
Roman soldiers diets were mainly breads and grain pastes. It has been estimated that each soldier consumed about 1/3 ton of wheat a year. Barley was reserved as punishment for units that had disgraced themselves. There are documented cases of troops rebelling when I forced to eat rations composed mainly of meat. Each group of soldiers carried a grinder to grind their ration of wheat into flour. The flour was often baked into hard biscuits called "buccellata", probably similar to the hardtack of navy fame.
The Roman naturalist Pliny believed that barley (Hordeum sativum) was the most ancient grain used by man. It is the hardiest of all grains and has the widest growing area. It was grown by Bronze Age man and the Egyptians grew it for making beer (See Early Period #5). Pearl barley purchased in the grocery store is made by grinding the grain into little balls. Look for natural barley in your local health food store.
The oldest oat grains that have been found date to the 12th dynasty in Egypt. It was grown in northern Europe from about 2000b.c. on. Greeks and Romans considered oats a weed and used it in medicine, although it was widely used as a food by the Germanic tribes. It is believed to have been introduced into England during the Anglo-Saxon invasions. We are most familiar with oats as oatmeal, which was first packaged for sale in 1854. Originally the grains were simply rolled flat, but they took a long time to cook. Now grain for this cereal is toasted, hulled, steamed, cut and rolled...quite a lot of processing. This is something to keep in mind when attempting to reconstruct early oat breads.
The name millet comes from the Latin mille (thousand), referring to the plant's fertility. While millet is still a staple food in some countries, Americans are most familiar with it as the rounded grains in bird seed. Like most of the grains discussed here, it can be purchased in any well-stocked health food store.
Rye (Secale cereale) is the most winter hardy grain known, which accounts for its heavy use in northern countries. Breads made from rye are nearly as nutritious as those made from wheat. Rye is associated with "St. Anthony's fire", caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. This poisoning periodically moved across Europe causing death to both men and animals. This plague was later prevented by simply removing infected heads before milling the rye into flour.
Our modern wheat has many ancestors. Archeological finds show that some form of wheat has been cultivated for at least 6,500 years. Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) is probably one of the most ancient. It has brittle stems and tightly clinging hulls. It is believed that this seven chromosome wheat hybridized to produce 14 chromosome wheats such as emmer. Emmer grows wild in the Near East today and some feel that our modern wheats originated there. The next level of development are the 21 chromosome wheats which include the Anglo-Saxon spelt (Triticum spelta). These wheats are cultivated and none have been found growing wild. It is the 21 chromosome wheats that gave us our bread wheats which have a high gluten content. It is the gluten which allows wheat breads to rise when baked.
Grain Paste in Greapeleaves
Here is a type of grain paste cooked in grape leaves similar to the Greek Dolmades.
Toast 1 cup of natural barley on a cookie sheet in the oven or in a heavy skillet on the stove. When it is a light brown, remove it and let it cool. Reduce the barley to a flour by placing about a quarter of a cup at a time in the blender and blending at high speed until it is powdered. You can also do this in a mortar for a more period flair.
Mix the flour with 1/2 cup of boiling water, a couple of garlic cloves crushed, a tablespoon of olive oil and 1/2 cup of finely chopped onion. Mix well until it forms a paste. Prepare grape leaves and roll up barley paste in the leaves as described in the recipe for Dolmades (Issue #5). You can actually eat the them at this point, or you can steam them for 15 minutes before eating. For really primitive fare, you can dispense with the grapeleaves.
This oatcake recipe includes bacon fat which makes the cakes tastier. They are best eaten either warm or toasted. We stuck them on the grill and melted cheese over them. They were great.
Mix four cups of uncooked oatmeal with 2 cups of buttermilk. Allow to stand for several hours. Stir occasionally. Add a teaspoon of salt, 1/4 to 1/2 cup of bacon grease and enough whole wheat flour to make a stiff dough. Form into cake. and allow to it covered on a floured baking sheet for thirty minutes. Bake in a moderate (350 degree) oven until they begin to brown and feel hard to the touch. These cakes will keep for a long time in the freezer. This is an adaptation of a recipe from British Heritage and combines a number of modern flours to simulate the "maslin' flour of Arthur's Britain.
Mix together 4 teaspoons of dried yeast, 1 tablespoon of honey and about 1/2 cup of tepid water in a small bowl. Set aside for about 10 minutes to allow the yeast time to begin to work. Mix the following ingredients together in a larger bowl and place them in a 200 degree oven to warm: 1 cup of whole wheat flour, 3/4 cup of rye flour, 1 cup of steel cut oats, 1/4 cup of buckwheat flour and 1 teaspoon of salt. When the yeast mixture is foamy and the flour mixture is warm but not hot, mix the two together. Add warm water it necessary to make a kneadable dough. Knead the dough until it is no longer sticky. Cover the dough and set it in a warm place until it is doubled in bulk (about 11/2 hours). Punch the dough down, knead it once more and cut or form into cakes about 1/28 thick and 28 across. Place on a floured surface and allow to rise for 30 minute.. Heat a pancake pan or griddle, grease with butter or lard and bake the cake over a low heat, about 10 minutes each side.
*Buckwheat did not come to Europe until the Crusades, but simulates weed seeds.
The Brehon laws of Ireland were very specific in defining what kind of stirabout or porridge (leite) was to be served to the various classes of fosterlings. Upper classes ate leite made of wheatmeal made with fresh milk and served with honey and unsalted butter. The lower classes. ate barley leite made with water or buttermilk and served with sour milk or salt butter. The most general leite was made of oats...oatmeal.
Assuming you are all of the noblest class, here is how to make wheaten stirabout or finn-leite:
Prepare regular Cream of Wheat (the kind you have to cook), substituting milk for half or more of the water. Stir it constantly since it will burn easier that usual. Serve with honey and unsalted butter.
Many attempts at frumenty end in disaster, or if not disaster, at least they bear no resemblance to the real frumenty because the cook used wheat kernels from the shelf of the supermarket. Real frumenty is made with fresh wheat kernels as close to harvest as possible. That is what gives frumenty it's milky, gelatinous quality. If you live near a wheat field, try this recipe. It was often served with roast or stewed venison.
Bring 11/2 cups of chicken stock and 11/2 cups of milk to a boil. Stir in 1 cup of hulled new wheat. Cover the pan and allow to simmer on the lowest possible heat until the stock is absorbed and the wheat is gelatinous and soft. You may need to add more broth or milk from time to time. If you wish the frumenty to have a yellow color, soak a few strains of saffron in the chicken stock before boiling it. You may also stir in a couple of beaten egg yolks before serving.
Hieatt, Constance B. and Butler, Sharon Pleyn Delit. University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Hopley, Clarie "Cooking in Arthur's Britain". British Heritage, June/July, 1986.
Moore, Alma Chesnut The Grasses. Macmillian, 1960.
Tannahill, Reay Food in History. Stein and Day, 1973.
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