On the eve of Diet Coke’s thirtieth anniversary party, a distinctly heartier food and fashion affair was underfoot in Mayfair. Creator and former director of Mulberry, Roger Saul, was introducing the Great British Spelt Recipe Collection in collaboration with stars of the UK food scene – Mark Hix, Yotam Ottolenghi, Gizzi Erskine and the Herbert boys. Together with Bowel Cancer UK, they were celebrating the April launch of an initiative to popularise the health benefits of this ancient grain.

Gizzi Erskine & Tom HerbertTo bring you up to speed, Spelt is a primitive form of wheat that developed in the fertile soils of the Middle East from the cross-pollination of Goat-grass and Emmer nearly ten thousand years ago. Revered in the UK, it became our key crop between 2000 BC and the Bronze Age, with the Romans dubbing it “the marching grain” because of its high energy content. During the 19th century however, production fell as industrial-farming techniques developed and Spelt gave way to modern wheat varieties that produced higher yields. By the mid-twentieth century, UK production had all but disappeared.

There is, of course, a certain romanticism attributed to the diets of old, yet Spelt’s rustic appeal was not what drew the likes of Heston and Hugh to the cause, nor led Roger Saul to avert his well-bespectacled eyes from fashion, and turn his attention to spelt cultivation. Rather, it was when Roger’s sister, suffering from cancer, was advised to try the grain that he noticed how hard it was to find.

Unable to source it in the UK, Roger chose the grain as one of the first experimental crops to be grown at his 300-acre organic estate, Sharpham Park. He imported seed from different European sources and found that it was well suited to the soil and climate of Somerset. With sustainability as his central ethos, Roger has successfully pursued organic spelt farming ever since. Sharpham Park now has a dedicated spelt-mill on site and produces a wide range of spelt flours, biscuits, pastas and breakfast cereals.

Edd Kimber, Brendan Lynch, Lisa FaulknerSpelt can be substituted for everything we use modern wheat for, and alongside increased fibre, it has higher protein content and a lower GI, also containing large amounts of complex B-vitamins, which are beneficial to the gut. A novice spelt-eater could be forgiven for presuming that spelt must be heavy, hearty ‘fibrous’ stuff. Yet it turns out that spelt flour can yield waffles lighter and sweeter than any Oxford Street vendor.

Bowel cancer is now the 3rd most prevalent cancer in the UK, with over 41,000 people diagnosed each year, yet it still carries a stigma with patients too reluctant or embarrassed to talk much about their bodily functions. At the launch, Norwegian Chef and author, Signe Johansen, told me that bowel cancer does not have the same stigma in her home country, where the importance of a fibrous diet and good bowel health is publically promoted. In the UK, we might not be quite so forthcoming, but lets hope the publication of the Great British Spelt Recipe Collection, with its star-studded recipes and useful information, is a step towards dealing with this important health issue, and improving the diets of us all.

Great British Spelt Recipes will be a free publication available online on 1st April 2013 to mark Bowel Cancer Awareness month.

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