In far, far away times in Ancient Rome, it is recorded that the legionaires and their centurions marched on spelt – better known as farro. Spelt is one of the oldest varieties of cultivated wheat and has rather come back in vogue with English artisan bakers. In the Italian centre and southern regions it is a household staple.
I find the Ancient Roman’s food excessive and fascinating – the more so since I began researching the father of gastronomy, Lucullus who brought us so much – not least the morello cherries, apricots and more from his campaigns across Asia Minor.
I was lucky enough to meet Dr Phyllis Bober at the Oxford Food Symposium in the days it had cred. She headed up Roman studies in one of the US East coast universities. To get her students into the genre she would cook authenthic Roman banquets for them to truly experience life as an Ancient Roman. Dr Bober told us they would eat genuine Roman dishes with not so much as a nod to modernism, dressed in toga’s, lounging on divans, probably with use of a vomitorium to help get through the weighty, often challenging menu.
The Roman kitchen today continues the tradition and is quite unlike the rest of Italy. Sauces like agro/dolce – where wine vinegar meets honey for a better, more refined sweet/sour than any Chinese place in Europe can manage. There’s also liquamen (sometimes called garum) made by fermenting anchovies in vats open to the sun to make a liquor of intense savoury flavour. This is still sold in a modern form as Colatura di Alici, made in Campania. My friends in New York, Gustiamo, sell it and it’s recently been hot-tipped by the press there as a summer must-have. You’ve been told. Never confuse this to Thai Fish Sauce which is a thin, fishy liquid by comparison.
Getting back to Roman soldiers on the march and their staple of farro – there is something specially healthy about cooking and eating it. It feels good. You just know you are doing the right thing, but it’s gastronomic rather than worthy. In truth there are few things you can’t do with it – see it as an alternative to rice, bulgar wheat, kasha, sarrasin, even pearl barley and cou-cous – then permit your creativity to run free.These have been staples across mainland Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean for centuries.
I talked this morning to Antonio, patron of Gennaro’s Delicatessen (Lewisham, London). It was not easy because an Ital-fest of super-machismo shouting was going down – suppliers coming and going, the next cockier than the last. Eventually over a short espresso we talked. Antonio, originally from Puglia, says he rinses his farro several times, cooks it for 12-15 minutes, allows it to cool and stores it in his ‘fridge for a week or so. He adds it to just about everything, from soups, anti-pasti vegetables, salads and of course to make the ’risotto al farro’. Rinsing farro is important says Antonio - two or three times before you start to cook. I never used to do that, so something learned today.
We like to cook ours in crystal clear chicken broth – that means bringing chicken carcases to the boil, throwing away the water, rinsing and starting again. Bring up to the boil and then allow to simmer for a minimum of 3 hours before using. Cook on for a further 3 hours to deepen in flavour. Make certain it doesn’t boil otherwise it will go creamy – tasty still, but a little crude shall we say.
Saute off a sofrito of finely diced onion and peeled celery – add farro and stir so it gets a coating – just as you would with rice. Add stock 2-3 ladles at a time – stir and leave each time – unlike a risotto where you keep on stirring.
After 12-15 minutes, taste for texture. It will be close to ready – so stir in finely diced asparagus and chicken breast (or any other elegant combination you choose that will cook in the farro and broth in a few minutes). Funnily enough, farro is far more resilient than rice in risotti. The Romans didn’t know that because rice would take another 1000 years to arrive in Europe.
Any left overs can be dressed with more EV olive oil and fresh lemon – and served as a salad.
Hunt down farro. You’ll need to visit an Italian shop – Sainsbury’s sold it once in Special Selection, but it didn’t last. The other supermarkets are non-stockists as yet. Any shop across Southern Italy sells it. Long live the difference – shame it didn’t work in England’s favour – the farro is still far, far away.