With the grain renaissance underway in many countries around the world, we see headline after headline clamoring the power of the revival of ‘ancient’ wheat varietals like emmer, spelt, and Einkorn, in a fight to protect biodiversity, and step away from industrial wheat hybrids.
For a community in the province of Kastamonu, in a forested area of northern Turkey not far from the Black Sea, Einkorn wheat, or Siyez as it is locally known, has been weaved into their lives for thousands of years.
Siyez wheat was first domesticated some 10,000 years ago in Karacadağ, South East of modern Turkey, and spread from the north of Fertile Crescent to the Balkans, Central Europe, and Caucasia. Einkorn is considered one of the founder crops as it supported the transition of humans from hunter-gathering nomads to settlers.
Many farmers in Kastamonu continue to cultivate it and process it as an intricate part of their identity, making it the largest area in Turkey to still grow it.
Siyez differs from conventional wheat varieties due to its low level of gluten, high protein, and nutrient content. Despite its extraordinary characteristics, the cultivation of Einkorn wheat had a decline for decades, due to mechanization which suitable for common wheat, showing the crop as unprofitable in comparison to modern hybrids. The grains have a thick glume, the papery husk around the grain requiring an extra processing step to dehull; and a weak and brittle rachis, the stemlet connecting the seed, often producing a poor harvest.
What makes this ancient wheat valuable is that it flourishes in poor soil where modern hybrids would struggle; it can survive harsh climates, from deep frost with at least three months of snow cover to arid summer conditions, with lower input and technology than modern wheat.
This is why in Kastamonu over 900 farmers continue to grow it, using it mostly to make a staple food called bulgur, because Einkorn or Siyez produces a lower ratio of gluten making it less suitable for most bread production. The production process for bulgur is relatively simple. The husked grains are covered with boiling water for about 20 minutes, then immediately cooled with cold water and spread out in the sun to dry. The wheat is then brought to a mill where it is ground repeatedly until the grains are cleaned and crushed.
“They must be split in two like the wings of a mosquito,” says Salim Kabaca, a Siyez Bulgur Presidium producer who lives and works in Ihsangazi, a village around 40 kilometers from the town of Kastamonu.
After cleaning and crushing, the wheat is spread out on large cloths and left in the sun to dry for one or two days, depending on the weather, and turned frequently. Bulgur is used in everyday cooking and is usually served as a pilaf, cooked in broth in a covered pan along with some minced onion sautéed in butter or oil.
Bulgur made from einkorn or Siyez is higher in protein and nutrients, while easier to digest – as some research suggests – than common bread wheat or durum wheat. Bulgur is also used for other recipes in Turkey, like Kısır – similar to tabbouleh but made with tomato paste, sweet and spicy peppers, cucumbers, parsley, and pomegranate syrup for sourness.
Very few producers in Kastamonu have the authorization necessary to sell their wheat, so this extraordinary grain is usually sold on the black market and ends up mixed with common wheat to make generic bulgur. The Presidium aims to make the direct sale of the product possible and to bring the production chain up to legal standards.
Prepared by Paula Thomas