The next great grain

For ‘health-hungry hippie foodies,’ farro might be the new quinoa

An elegant and versatile grain, farro can be added to most any dish, such at this bean and farro soup.

An elegant and versatile grain, farro can be added to most any dish, such at this bean and farro soup.

Remember when quinoa prices shot through the roof, from $1.50 per pound to more than $5 in just several years? Exactly what happened in global supply-demand economics is hard to pinpoint, but one thing is certain: Quinoa—that would-be staple of nearly every healthy household, that grain that is always whole, that grain that nourished the Incas and was fast on a New Age comeback—went walking out of many lives.

Like mine. For a period of at least two years there was a sorry gap. Those evenings when quinoa would have provided the main starchy course, we had only brown rice, potatoes or bread. We ate like peasants again, bereft of our main dietary link to the progressive world of health-hungry hippie foodies.

But then one day, while browsing the bulk food aisle of a Bay Area organic grocery store, I encountered a barley-like grain whose name I had only heard whispers of once or twice before. I gave it a chance, and though I didn’t know it yet, what had been lost with quinoa would be all but regained with this new, pretty stranger named farro.

Farro, as I was fast to learn, is a hearty variety of wheat important in Italian cuisine. Also called emmer—and, erroneously, spelt (which is a different product)—farro cooks in 30 to 40 minutes. Though it resembles barley or spelt, cooked farro is particularly light and silky, and of the world’s staple grains it’s surely among the most elegant.

It serves well as a salad base, the soft and pliable kernels readily absorbing olive oil, vinegar, and citrus juice, as well as sauces. Its Mediterranean origins make farro a fit for dishes bearing dates, figs, pomegranate seeds, nuts, olives, basil and other sweet and savory ingredients of Mediterranean agriculture, though I don’t see why soy sauce, wasabi, coconut milk and other such elements of the Orient wouldn’t do well with farro, too.

Though it seems to be trending into modern popularity, farro has been among us all along. Pliny the Elder is supposed to have praised it, and there is evidence that the Greeks and Romans relished the grain. Ancient Egyptians, according to archaeologists, made bread from farro.

Even then, under the shadows of the pyramids and the glare of the sphinx, farro was old news. For millennia prior—between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago—farmers in southeast Turkey are believed to have domesticated farro. Five thousand years earlier still, pre-agriculture chefs of the Near East were cooking and serving farro’s ancestor, wild emmer, which still grows in the area today and is often classified in the same species as farro, Triticum dicoccum.

But that’s just history, and the dinner bell is ringing, so here is my suggested farro recipe—an easy vegetarian dish I totally winged for a recent potluck dinner party:

I cooked two cups of farro in four cups of salted water until soft yet firm. When it had cooled, I combined the grain with chopped pistachios, a finely minced apple, diced dates, ground cumin and shredded arugula in a large bowl. I dressed the salad with Meyer lemon juice, olive oil and red wine vinegar. An hour later, the rib roast was only half eaten—but the farro salad had been demolished.

Farro’s retail price will almost certainly preclude it, for now, from becoming anything but a treat. S&S Produce, for instance, sells 12-ounce bags of Earthly Choice brand (grown in Italy) for $6.99, expensive enough to make many of us opt for filling a sack with quinoa and leave thinking we’ve scored a bargain.

But in other regions, farro can cost less than $4 per pound—and if prices should drop to just a bit lower than that, farro could again be a staple starch. But if prices should blow through the roof as they did with quinoa, we must, I suppose, go looking for the next great grain.