Thursday, July 9, 2009
What is Farro?
Farro, an ancient wheat grain, has become quite popular these days among ingredient-driven chefs and cooks. With this new found interest a lot of misinformation has also come along. I’m not sure when it began, but possibly as a result of a misinformed article written by Heidi Julavits in a New York Times Sunday magazine piece from November 2008. Julavits made a classic mistake often made by food writers in relying on morphological characteristics in trying to understand wheat taxonomy as has her source popular food science writer Harold McGee. Modern germ plasm research has superseded morphological characteristics as a means of taxonomic identification for a variety of reasons and studies using DNA-based molecular markers such as random amplified polymorphic DNA markers (RAPD), simple sequence repeats (SSRs), and amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) are needed to settle these types of questions. Wheat taxonomy is quite complex and one must make a distinction between dipolid, tetrploid and hexaploid wheats, then between hulled and naked grain and finally between wild and domesticated. Julavits' article, partially titled “farro is not spelt” is based on morphological distinctions of the most amateur kind. The reason McGee made a mistake too, calling "farro the Italian word for emmer wheat" (which it is not, although you will find Italians using it to refer to any ancient wheat be it spelt or emmer), is because he too was considering morphological characteristics as opposed to looking at hexaploid and tetraploid wheats. Here is what all this is:
Emmer wheat is domesticated hulled grain wheat of the tetraploid group with 28 chromosomes represented by three subspecies whose Latin binomials are Triticum turgidum L. subsp. diococcum (syn. T. diococcum Shrank); T. ispahanicum Heslot; and T. turgidum L. subsp. paleocolchicum.
Farro, the Italian word, is spelt wheat, a domesticated hulled grain wheat of the hexaploid group with 42 chromosomes whose Latin binomial is Triticum aestivum L. subsp. spelta (syn. T. spelta L.)
Ergo, farro is spelt wheat not emmer wheat as claimed by Julavits and McGee.
But let me add more. Many food writers are quite insistent that farro is emmer. They may claim that Italian farmers are known to claim farro is emmer. But what an Italian farmer claims don't make it so. It's true that in the common language (of Italian) farro is a word used for emmer. Italian cytogenetic researchers though don't make this mistake. The GRIN Taxonomy for Plants which provides nomenclature for accessions of the National Plant Germplasm System, of the U.S. ARS is rather clear about this: Farro is not T. dicoccum but T. aestivum L. subsp. spelta. Incidentally, in modern taxonomy T. diococcum has been superseded by T. turgidum L. subsp. diococcum. On farro being spelt and not emmer see www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/taxon.pl?406903.