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Farro: Grain of the Legions

Grano Farro has a long and glorious history: it is the original grain from which all others derive, and fed the Mediterranean and Near Eastern populations for thousands of years; somewhat more recently it was the standard ration of the Roman Legions that expanded throughout the Western World. Ground into a paste and cooked, it was also the primary ingredient in puls, the polenta eaten for centuries by the Roman poor. Important as it was, however, it was difficult to work and produced low yields. In the centuries following the fall of the Empire, higher-yielding grains were developed and farro's cultivation dwindled: By the turn of the century in Italy there were a few hundreds of acres of fields scattered over the regions of Lazio, Umbria, the Marches and Tuscany.

Farro would probably still be an extremely local specialty had the farmers of the French Haute Savoie not begun to supply it to elegant restaurants that used it in hearty vegetable soups and other dishes. Their success sparked renewed interest in farro among gastronomes, and now the grain is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in Italy as well, especially among trendy health-conscious cooks.

At this point you may be wondering exactly what farro is. According to Garzanti's Italian-English dictionary it's spelt, but Luciano Migliolli, author of Il Farro e le sue Ricette (Farro and its recipes), says that though it looks rather like spelt they're not the same. Farro must be soaked, whereas spelt can be boiled straight off. Also, cooked farro has a firm chewy texture, whereas spelt softens and becomes mushy. What this means is that you have to read the package carefully when you purchase farro (a well-stocked delicatessen or health food store should have it) to make certain you are getting Triticum dicoccum (farro's Latin name). If you cannot find farro spelt will work, and you should be able to use barley or other whole grains as well -- the results won't be quite the same and you will have to adjust the cooking times, but the dishes will be good.

Purchasing and Preparation

  • Farro is divided into 3 grades. The best has grains 6-8 mm long (1/4 to 1/3 of an inch), the second has grains 3-5 mm long (1/8 to 1/4 inch, which can be inappropriately labeled farricello, the Italian for spelt), and the third consists of cracked grains broken during processing. Mr. Migliolli suggests you purchase whole grain farro and crack it at home, if the recipe calls for it, by whirling it in an electric coffee grinder or blender -- this way you avoid purchasing dust or stones. Once you have purchased it, store it like any other grain, in a sealed glass container in a cool dry place.
  • Before you can use it you do have to prepare it: Wash it well, picking out impurities such as bits of chaff, pebbles, or bad grains, and soak it for at least 8 hours. It will keep in this soaked state in the refrigerator for a few days. Come time to cook it, either add it to a soup or boil it by itself, for 2 hours in a normal pot or one in a pressure cooker (halve these times if you are using cracked farro). One thing that you should keep in mind is that farro will continue to absorb liquid and soften once it is done, so you should let it sit for a while if you can.
    Another way to cook farro for minestrone and such is to set it to boil directly in abundant vegetable broth (for example from boiling beans, chick peas, or cabbage) for a couple of hours, then let it rest and puff up for at least 8 hours before stirring it into the soup pot. The farro will absorb lots of vegetable flavor, but you have to make certain you have sufficient vegetable broth handy for making the soups as well before you begin.
Farro Recipes on the Site
Zuppa di Farro -- Farro Soup, a hearty dish especially common the the Garfagnana region.
Farro con Cavolo Nero -- Farro with Kale, one of the standard Tuscan winter vegetables.
La Minestra Povera di Farro -- Poor Man's Farro Soup, a hearty dish from the Emilian Apennines.
Verdurata di Farro -- Greens and Farro -- this is more of a hint than a recipe, but will steer you well.
Torta Salata di Farro -- Savory Farro Pie, a hearty winter pie with ricotta as well.
Insalata d'Estate -- A Summer Salad with farro, from the hills of Lazio
Pamela Sheldon Johns's Farro Salad -- from her book, Cucina Povera
Farro al Nero di Seppia -- A tasty grain-based dish with squid and squid ink.
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