It is extraordinary what takes place when one makes time to relax and simply slow down the pace of life. One suddenly becomes aware of small things. This is exactly what happened to me during my recent visit to Provence, only a few weeks ago. The frantic pace of my life was suddenly gone and I had the luxury of letting things unfold.
One of my favorite activities on the trip was reading Provençal cookbooks. On my very first day in Saint-Rémy I made a beeline for the local bookstore and browsed through all the cookbooks before settling on a couple of them. The very next day, a friend, who also happens to be a chef in a local restaurant, gave me a copy of a legendary nineteenth-century cookbook, “La Cuisinière Provençale” by Jean-Baptiste Reboul. I was thrilled! I set out to read all my cookbooks and immersed myself in the culture. Then two small words caught my eye… something I had never heard of before: petit épeautre. What on earth was this? So I did some research and discovered that this grain, an ancient form of wheat, had been harvested from the wild as early as 16,000 BC and actually domesticated and cultivated around 10,000 BC. Unbelievable! (I also finally found its English name: “einkorn” or “small spelt.”)
It would take some persistence to find out more about this ancient grain. But that would be my project when I got home… For the time being all I could think about was getting my hands on some! As it turned out, it wasn’t hard to find: all it took was walking into a charming specialty shop in Saint-Rémy. There I found a proud bag of petit épeautre sitting right there on the shelf.
Within a couple of hours, my husband Marc and I were eating my first creation with it: and we couldn’t believe how delicious this grain was! It is sweet, nutty and very delicate—I would say even refined. I composed this salad with the fresh vegetables I’d bought from the local farmers’ market and the famous cured olives of Nyons. This is truly the best of what cooking with fresh, local ingredients has to offer—an experience that cannot be forgotten.
Needless to say, I came back with a few bags of petit épeautre in my suitcase and immediately made the recipe here. To my delight it was just as good. Then I did my research. This ancient grain, “Triticum monococcum,” turns out to be significantly higher in protein than modern wheat, extremely high in vitamin B and magnesium, and very low in gluten. It thrives in even very poor soil and is very resistant to disease and pests because of the strong glumes (husks) that tightly enclose the grain. Unfortunately, it yields far less than modern wheat crops, which is why it has been abandoned for production, except in small areas in Provence, Italy and Yugoslavia. In the U.S., einkorn is apparently grown and used only for research purposes, alas…
Fortunately I have found a Canadian farmer who grows petit épeautre/einkorn and ships to the US. You have to email them and send a check, but it is well worth the effort. Contact Prime Grains, they not only carry whole grains, but flour as well! To order from Prime Grains, email John Husband at email@example.com. As of 2010, they also grow Ethiopian barley and buckwheat.
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of ordering online, farro and pearl barley would be good substitutes. You can find those grains in specialty, gourmet and organic shops.
Tomato, Cucumber and Cured Olive Chopped Salad with Petit Épeautre
active time: 30 min
For the petit épeautre
- 1 cup petit épeautre, pearl barley or farro
- 2 quarts (1.9 L) spring water
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 large garlic clove – skinned
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprig rosemary
- 4 sprig thyme
- (all herbs tied in a bundle with kitchen string)
For the vinaigrette
- 2 tablespoons aged balsamic wine vinegar
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small shallot – skinned and finely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste
For the chopped salad
- 2 medium beefsteak tomatoes – seeded and cut in 1/8” cubes
- 1 medium cucumber – peeled, seeded and cut in 1/8” cubes
- 1/3 cup pitted cured black olives – coarsely chopped
- 1 small bunch fresh chives – finely chopped (use kitchen scissors)
- frisée or baby arugula leaves as garnish
- Step 1: Rinse the grains in cold water and strain. In a medium heavy-bottomed soup pot bring spring water to a boil. Add salt, garlic, herb bundle and grains. Reduce heat to medium and fast-simmer uncovered for 30 minutes until tender but still al dente. Drain and set aside to cool to room temperature. Once the grain has cooled, remove the herb bundle and the garlic.
- Step 2: To make the vinaigrette, whisk all ingredients in a small bowl. Add half the dressing to the grains and mix well. Set the balance of the dressing aside.
- Step 3: In a large bowl, place the tomato and cucumber cubes, the chopped olives and the chopped chives. Mix well. Place a small mound of the grains in the center of each plate. Flatten with the back of a spoon and spread in a 5” circle. Top with a small mound of the tomato/cucumber mixture. Garnish with a few frisée leaves. Drizzle with the balance of the dressing. Finish with some freshly ground black pepper if desired and serve immediately.
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Disclaimer: As always, my point of view is my own. I do not accept samples, and have no commercial relationship with any product, food or wine company.