Spelt – About spelt and Birkkala
Spelt (Triticum spelta) is an old relative to wheat. The earliest archaeological evidence of spelt dates about 9,000 years back. Spelt is thought to be from either the Asia-Pacific region or the South East Europe-Middle East region. Spelt was known in many places in Europe in the late Neolithic period at the latest. During the Bronze Age its cultivation spread to larger areas. During the Iron Age it was the most important bread grain in many parts of Central Europe.
Ancient Greek athletes favoured spelt, and spelt was the basis of their diet as well. Puls, the thick porridge cooked from rough spelt grains was one of the oldest basic foods in Rome. Ceres, a Roman goddess of agriculture, was believed to have a very special relationship with spelt. Spelt also played an important role at Roman festivities. The most important and celebrated form of Roman marriage was confarreatio. A part of the wedding ceremony was that the husband and wife sat on a sheepskin and enjoyed a spelt bread in the presence of Flamen Dialis (Jupiter’s high priest), Pontifex Maximus (the leader of the Pontifex priesthood) and ten witnesses. This marriage was believed to be unbreakable.
The oldest evidence of spelt cultivation in Finland have been found in the Salo region in the 300s AD, that is, in the same areas where the Birkkala farm is located. Spelt was a common crop in Europe in the Middle Ages but it was later replaced by crops of higher yield and easier-to-cultivate crops during the Modern Age and Industrialisation. Nevertheless, the traditional cultivation remained, among other places, in the mountainous regions of Germany, where spelt, a crop suitable for rugged terrains, flourished. More than twenty years ago, when we in the Birkkala farm started cultivating spelt, our seeds arrived from Germany as well.
There have been many stories associated with spelt throughout the ages. It is told that the Roman Empire’s army marched with energy gained from spelt, and in the 1100s Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine nun, praised the nutritional values of spelt and stated that it contributes to healing all the diseases, even depression.
A selection of spelt history sources:
Castren, Paavo 2011, Uusi antiikin historia, Otava, Helsinki.
Hersch, Karen K. 2010, The Roman Wedding - Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge University Press.
Hirschfelder, G. 2001, Europäische Esskultur: eine Geschichte der Ernährung von der Steinzeit bis heute, Campus New York, Frankfurt.
Hänninen, M. & Kahlos, M. 2004, Roomalaista arkea ja juhlaa, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.
Rasila, V., Jutikkala, E. & Mäkelä-Alitalo, A. 2003, Suomen maatalouden historia, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.
Information on spelt’s names and language history can be found in the frequently asked questions.