Bulgarian farmers cultivate ancient grain einkorn to meet demand

Petko Angelov grabs an old, rusted sickle and leads people clad in folk costumes to a ritual harvest in his fields in southern Bulgaria sown with the first ever wheat planted by humanity — the einkorn.

The popularity of the ancient grain, the origins of which can be traced back 10,500 years to the dawn of agriculture, is mounting in the Balkan country as people seek out healthier food, sustainable farming methods, and national pride.

Mr Angelov, a retired pilot, is at the heart of the growing army of einkorn producers, providing the rare seeds from his crops in the southern village of Rabovo in the Rhodopi mountains, close to the border with Greece and Turkey.

“The einkorn is really gearing on. There is at least 300% rise in the demand for seeds, especially from Bulgarian origin,” he said.

Eincorn was part of the diet of Copper Age man, a fact proved by colon content analysis of the 5,300-year-old Otzi the Iceman mummy found in the Alps in 1991.

In Bulgaria, it can be traced back to the Neolithic Age some 9,000 years ago.

The tall and sturdy plant, however, has since been abandoned because its yield is low, its hulled ears need additional processing and its type of gluten makes baking a challenge.

But renewed health consciousness and a surge in organic farming has helped to trigger a comeback in a thrifty grain which thrives without fertiliser in poor soil and is genetically pure, as it has never been hybridised.

Farmers in the Black Sea grain producer country that export about 2m tonnes of wheat a year are now turning to einkorn and fields have tripled to about 400ha from a year ago and virtually from scratch in 2009.

“Offers are already coming from richer western European markets, Japan, and South Korea and we are getting ready to export once the volumes increase,” said Mr Angelov.

Studies showed the grain is rich in proteins, and the level of antioxidants that fight ageing and chronic diseases is almost eight times higher compared to the cultivated wheat normally used for bread. It also has more iron and zinc.

“We were excited to find out how rich in proteins and antioxidants einkorn was,” said Andrea Brandolini, a researcher at the Italian Agricultural Research Council, involved in einkorn research since 1993.

The low yield and the need for threshing make the einkorn unfit for modern agriculture, but its excellent nutritious qualities make it a speciality on the market.

Manfred Heun at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences developed a weak spot for the grain after leading a team of scientists to southeastern Turkey in 1997, proving that einkorn was the first grain domesticated by mankind.

“Einkorn is the ultimate grain. And the einkorn beer adds an excellent taste,” said Mr Heun, who now grows the ancient wheat in his garden in Norway.


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