Experiments with wheat

Does soaking wheat in hot water in a warm place produce an edible wheat porridge?


Primitive wheat

On p. 34 of Food in History, Reay Tannahill has this drawing of wild wheat, show the hull or chaff, the grain and the awn which has mostly disappeared from domesticated wheats. On p. 38 she says
Whole wheat, soaked in hot water at the side of the fire, after some hours swells and gelatinizes into a delicious kind of spangled white aspic. A dish of this type crops up in later times everywere from India to Cuba, from China to England (where it is known as frumenty, fermenty, fromity, or furmity). It may--possibly, if not altogether probably--have been invented as early as the neolithic period.
Later on p. 110 she says
For frumenty, that milky jelly made by soaking husked wheat in hot water for twenty-four hours, the housewife needed only a sturdy earthenware dish placed in a corner of the hearth.

On the other hand the blog,Art and Mystery of food, experimented with making frumenty and came to the conclusion that just leaving a dish of water and wheat beside the hearth did not produce a gel of any kind. The experimenter simmered the wheat for 8 hours and and then boiled it hard for another 2 and got puffed but none gelatinous grains. Putting the wheat in a blender or buying pearled wheat solved the problem. But early man didn't have either blenders, access to the supermarket with pearled wheat, or even a good saucepan for boiling the wheat.


The commonest wheats at the time of the Romans was Emmer and spelt, not the bread wheat that is the common wheat now. I think that emmer wheat might produce the gelatinous mush as described in Food in History. The experimenter in Art and Mystery of food appears to have used common wheat, which would be bread wheat now.


I bought Spelt and both hard and soft bread wheat from a local health food store. I ordered Emmer from Lentz Spelt farms. I put a tablespoon of each kind of wheat in separate custard cups and covered the wheat with hot water. Since my self-cleaning oven is very well-insulated and stays hot a loooong time, I heated it to 300, turned if off and put in the wheat and left it overnight, attempting to reproduce the effect of a pot sitting by hearth overnight.


Before adding water and putting in the oven

Before soaking

After 12 hours:

After 12 hours

The oven when I opened was down to room temperature, so it didn't really duplicate the hearthside effect well. The grains are all noticeably larger, the water has been absorbed but the grains are still distinct. I sampled a few kernels of each grain. The Emmer was completely soft, even mushy. The spelt still had a hard core. The two bread wheats were a bit harder than the spelt but still softer than unsoaked bread wheat.
To complete the 24 hour soaking mentioned in Food in History, I turned the oven on to 200 and put the wheat back in for another 12 hours.
I forgot to allow for the dryness of the air and the drying effect of having the oven on. My wheat dried out by the time I checked it in another 6 hours. So, I added more water but I also started 4 more test cups so I can hopefully have one successful run.

After 24 hours

Emmer after 24 hours

The upper left cup is Emmer after 24 hours. The lower cup is Emmer after 6 hours. As you can see a substantial number of the emmer grains have completely opened but it's still not what I would call spangled aspic. This is the emmer that I soak, then accidentally toasted, then soaked another 6 hours. After 36 hours, a few more grains had open but still not gelatinous. I ate the 36 hour emmer for breakfast with milk and sugar. The taste was mild. The texture was chewy but not mushy, a little chewier than oatmeal. Definitely it was palatable. The spelt (upper right) after 24 hours and the accidental toasting has a few open grains.
Soft and hard wheats after 24 hours

The soft and hard wheats, above, after 24 hours still have no open grains. Tasting them, they are firmer and gummier than the emmer. They also have a stronger wheat flavor than the emmer. They don't look they are going to become "aspic" any time soon.

Adventures in cooking with wheat

For breakfast I had the soaked and accidentally toasted emmer with sugar and cream. For an afternoon snack, I sauted some shallots with the soaked spelt in olive oil and added a little V-8 (I wanted a touch of tomato), salt and pepper. The V-8 tomato flavor pretty much overwhelmed any nutty flavor from the spelt but the texture was very nice. Definitely chewier than the emmer.
Next step is sprouting emmer for the bread.

Making bread from emmer wheat

Sprouted Emmer
Following the instructions for Essene Bread from the Grain Power blog, I sprouted the a cup of emmer wheat for 4 days. The wheat required rinsing at least twice a day to cut down on fermentation. On the evening of the 4th day, I rinsed the grain a final time and let it drain. I initially tried grinding the drained grain (say that fast 5 times) in my mini food processor. That wasn't working well, so I tried my full size blender, which worked fine. When the ground grain looked about the right texture I put it in my KitchenAid mixer for the final kneading. The resulting mass did not make a ball like kneaded wheat bread, even after kneading it for some time. There are a couple of possible reasons for that. I drained the sprouted emmer but did not dry it so it might have had too much moisture. The Grain Power blog used regular bread wheat. I used emmer and it is possible that emmer wheat does not have enough gluten to make a well shaped ball. Bread dough develops an unmistakeable satiny sheen when the gluten has been activated and I did see that happening so there was some gluten in my dough or "grain paste" as archaeologists call it. After about 20 minutes of the Kitchen Aid, I gave up on kneading and turned the dough out on a parchment covered baking sheet.
Unbaked Emmer "grain paste"

I baked the dough for 3 hours at 250 degrees. It appeared to be done and I brushed it with olive oil and let it cool. When I cut a slice of the cooled bread the dough was clearly still undone in the center. So I sliced it like biscotti and baked the slices for another 45 minutes at 275 degrees.
Baked Emmer

Emmer Biscotti

A taste of Rome

The resulting "biscotti" was dense and fairly hard with a crisp crust. The biscotti was part of an Ancient Rome tasting (below). The tasting also including olives, walnuts, almonds, and dried apricots, all of which could have been found in Ancient Rome. There was a dipping sauce for the bread made of a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, marjoram, and salt (because there was no salt in the bread itself. The Roman bread was pronounced very tasty, particularly when dipped into the olive oil mixture. A real Roman meal would have been served with watered wine and if the bread was too hard it could have been dipped into the wine to soften it.
A taste of Ancient Rome

Additional sources

The instructions I used for making Essene bread are on the Grain Power Blog
This blog has a recipe for a cake made with farro flour, sour cream and prunes. Emmer is normally called farro, however, in many places farro refers to either emmer or spelt.
Culinate.com has a good description of the sprouting process.