Saturday, July 2, 2011

Preparing Wheat for food: The early days

                                                   July 1, 2011

It was one thing to realize that the seeds of grasses were nourishing. It turned out to be quite another to get the seeds out of their husks and into an edible form. People came up with different ways of threshing the wheat – getting the outer husk or chaff off, and winnowing –  separating the edible kernels from the leftover chaff. 

One of the most intriguing methods was Celtic, called “graddaning.” In Food in History (page 24), Reay Tannahill quotes a Scottish traveler from the 1600s describing the process. “ ‘A woman, sitting down, takes a handful of corn [the word is used in England to mean any sort of grain, not specifically maize], holding it by the stalks in her left hand, and then sets fire to the ears which are presently in a flame; she has a stick in her right hand . . . beating off the grain at the very instant when the husk is quite burnt. . . . The corn may be so dressed, winnowed, ground and baked within an hour after reaping from the ground.’”

Tannahill goes on to say that “toasting of the grain . . . would make it instantly digestible, bypass the whole problem of containers . . .  The grain would simply be rubbed clean in the usual way and then pounded into coarse flour . . .  The addition of a little water would convert [this] into a doughy substance that could be baked in a flat cake on the hearthstone, or eaten just as it was. . . [like a porridge].” 

Later posts will talk more about the different sorts of ovens and hearths, pots and pans and implements for cooking wheat. See the post about Flatbreads for some discussion of how baking in an oven instead of using a griddle can make the same dough turn into a very different bread. Tannahill suggests that porridge was an early way to prepare wheat, and others suggest that beer was one of the very early uses. More on all of these topics in the next few weeks.

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