A 12th century saint prescribed mixing spelt with an egg to “heal you like a fine ointment,” although today you’re more likely to find it in your waffles than the medicine cabinet. Thanks to an Ohio farmer and an Ohio State University researcher, Ohio produces more spelt than any other state. Recently, spelt products have cropped up on grocery shelves nationwide. So, what’s spelt?
“The spelt is the best of grains,” Saint Hildegard Von Bingen wrote almost eight centuries ago. “It produces a strong body and healthy blood to those who eat it, and it makes the spirit of man light and cheerful.”
Health food store owners are finding those words pretty easy to swallow as spelt is meeting fast-growing demand for wheat-free products. Thousands of Americans suffer from a wheat allergy and many have found spelt to be an alternative. Others are choosing spelt for its unique flavor and cultural history.
Older than its close relative wheat, spelt is mentioned as far back as the book of Exodus and was in use even earlier. However, its modern story takes root in northern Ohio.
The crop was first brought to the state by German and Swiss immigrants in the 1800s, but due to processing difficulties, relatively low yields and an end to quota restrictions on wheat, it was gradually abandoned by most U.S. farmers although it continued to be grown in Europe.
Spelt gains ground in Ohio
Spelt was resurrected in the United States in the 1960s when W.B. French of Wakeman in Lorain County noticed some common spelt growing on a neighbor’s property.
“He was an innovator,” said Larry French, W.B.’s grandson and operator of French’s Hybrids, which specializes in spelt seed. “He was always looking for an opportunity.”
Nobody is quite sure what sparked W.B.’s interest in the crop, but whatever the reason, he obtained some spelt seed and went to work. The seed had come from a field contaminated with weeds and lacked the quality needed for commercial production.
“He quickly realized he needed to do some purification to get the weed seed out,” French said.
In the early 1970s, W.B. contacted Ohio State University agronomist Hal Lafever. An expert on wheat, Lafever had not considered developing spelt until W.B. mentioned it. Lafever soon saw the crop’s potential and began a breeding program for spelt. His research has resulted in five improved spelt varieties that are well adapted to growing conditions in the Midwest and Canada and are the only U.S. developed spelt seed on the market to date.
“People have been breeding wheat for almost 200 years,” Lafever said. “We’ve come a long way in a short time.”
Although spelt foods are more popular than ever in the United States, Lafever and French agree that before the crop gains widespread acceptance, people are going to have to learn just what exactly it is.
“We ship seed coast to coast but you could go to central Ohio and nobody has heard of spelt,” French said. “It’s an education process.”
Lafever believes that mainstream acceptance may come if a company such as Panera Bread introduces a line of spelt products. He said the taste makes it worth trying, adding that spelt pancakes are a personal favorite.
While spelt’s flavor is difficult to describe, it has definitely been one of its selling points. Some say it’s milder and sweeter than wheat, others say it tastes nutty and Lafever says it just tastes different. One bakery owner in Berlin, Ohio will confidently tell you that it’s “what great nutrition should taste like.”
“People just like it, they like it better,” said Joy Shrock, owner of Berlin Natural Bakery in Holmes County, which bakes a variety of spelt breads, cookies and crackers for consumers across the nation. Although spelt has found its niche in the health food market, Shrock expects it to cross over in the future into more grocery stores.
Shrock said that by making a high-quality product her company plans to win over new customers.
“Grocery stores are starting to get in on the game, and it is definitely changing everything,” she said. “It’s reaching a whole new audience…our company grew through word of mouth. We do it one person at a time… people are really excited about it.”
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