Le petit épeautre (einkorn) has been grown around the Mediterranean for at least 10,000 years. Triticum monococcum is thought to have originated in what is now Turkey and was the starch staple of all the civilisations around the Sea until the rise of the Roman Empire. It is a highly nutritious grain, rich in protein, phosphorus and magnesium. But, with the advancing Eagle came hull-free wheat, hard and soft, which was easier to harvest, leaving more men free to march to the remote corners of imperium romanum and lay waste recalcitrant eaters of non-imperial grain. (An early example of the availability of labour being more important than the health of the population, which runs through Victorian tracts on the urban poor, contemporary hand-wringing over obesity and diabetes and the efficient replacement, over much of SE Asia of red rice with white).
Here the landscape does not lend itself to rolling fields of wheat. You are lucky to find 2000 sq metres which are flat. In general, the soil is poor, we have little rain and summers are very hot. And so, for centuries, most wheat has been brought into the area, from other parts of France, and further away. However, in the past 20 years there has been a strong movement here, more than any other part of France, to find sustainable ways of growing food, and of cultivating produce and animals which require as little chemical support as possible and which can flourish in the climate. Thus portly woolly sheep are nowhere to be seen, we have skinny almost fat free beasts who jump around in 35 degrees and whose flesh grows succulent on fragrant wild thyme and scrappy bits of grass. Our dairy animals are sheep and goats, you need to go north into the damper and cooler Vercors to find milk cows: our trees are the traditional ones of the south, apricots, olives, figs, walnuts and almonds.
For centuries, einkorn lay dormant. biding its time. I am what I am. I can wait. And then, someone under a tree, had a Newtonian moment (though with an apricot not an apple). And here we are.
The farm of Pierre Vieille lies a few kilometres from the village of Cornillac. The petit epautre which they grow, over three hectares, is the only one in Haute Provence to carry the IGP label (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indication_géographique_protégée) which is a European benchmark of quality and a tremendous acknowledgement of their commitment and work. I have been invited to the harvest, which has been postponed because of the constant rain we have had. We go to the fields at 0730 to make a final assessment, and it is agreed to return and cut in the afternoon.
One of the striking things about these fields is that, unlike untreated wheat, you do not see patches of poppies or cornflowers: they are pristine. Surely you don’t spray it? No, of course not. Einkorn has a very very dense ground coverage, making it almost impossible for weeds to take root, and so the sowing/yield ratio is excellent. Because of the very hard and prickly husk, the plant is not inviting to small mammals and birds so, in contrast to the harvesting of untreated wheat, an unplanned exodus of furry and feathered folk, with considerable collateral damage, is not part of the deal.
At the appointed hour we sit, under a lime tree. Like the coming of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you can hear and feel Jerome some time before he appears, like some terrible behemoth, up the path. Looking at the vertiginous slopes of the field, and the lumbering mass of the machine, a happy outcome seems unlikely. But, of course, it’s fine. Rather like a huge seal waddling from rock to sea, or a portly Brazilian toddling to the dancefloor, the machine moves towards its element. No more heaving and juddering, it’s away, poetry in motion. The cutters at the front wave gracefully through 360 degrees to cut the einkorn, the grain stored in a tank,the chaff propelled out of the back.
Guillaume has now appeared with the tractor and large bags. The two machines move to a synchronised duet and the sack is filled with 800kg grain, which is then deposited on the trailer. Da capo, until the field is cut.
Le petit epautre can only be grown for one year out of three, next year they will plant a legume, to replace nutrients into the soil and then perhaps lavender. But it has returned to be part of the natural cycle again, in its proper place, as unchanged and timeless as the landscape.
with many thanks to Laurence Monlahuc and Guillaume Maillard (pictured) who run the Pierre Vieille farm, and their friend Jerome. Thanks also to Vincent Clary of the Syndicat du petit epautre de Haute Provence.
The farm, at the top of one of the most beautiful valleys in the Drome, offers camping and treks over the hills with donkeys. It is one of the most magical places I know.
There is some confusion (initially shared by me) about the translation of epautre. By itself, it translates as spelt. However, in France, there are three types of epautre, which translate as follows:
einkorn – petit épeautre (tritium monococcum)
emmer – épeautre amidonnier (tritium dicoccum)
spelt – grand épeautre (tritium spelta)