August 11, 2013

My Gluten-Intolerant Happy Story of Wheat

If ever I feel like an outsider in my own culture, it's when I cannot eat wheat with others.  I am gluten-intolerant.  However, I ate wheat in Italy.  In this post I will attempt to begin to explain why.

None of the Italians in Italy were surprised that I could eat wheat there but not at home.  It must happen all the time.  Non-Italians visit Italy from their own homeland where they have been told they cannot eat wheat.  They go to Italy and eat the wheat and are fine.  I had heard of this happening to other people.  I prayed it would happen to me, but I was not planning on it.

I targeted one day of my trip to deviate from my gluten abstinence and selected our class visit to a bio-dynamic farm in the hills of Tuscany outside of Florence.  I knew that they grew ancient wheat there and were going to serve us a light lunch showcasing their grain.  I didn't, however, quite wait till the farm to try my Italian wheat.

I was motivated to take my first taste of wheat the night before at the cooking school, In Tavola.  It was our second of two classes and we learned to make pasta.  Perfect, traditional, pasta with eggs which you include if you're going to eat the pasta fresh.  When pasta is made to be dried and stored, it is not made with eggs.

Fresh Pasta with Eggs


Our chef-instructors were kind enough to cook up some gluten-free pasta for me, but they heated up tomato sauce from a can and tossed in some herbs and threw it on a plate.  Yuck.  I had never eaten a more bland spaghetti in my life.  And imagine sitting at a table of 18 where everyone is eating the lovely masterpieces above and you are eating the not-so-bad-looking but bland mish-mosh below.
I pushed the corkscrews to the side and plated a serving of our handmade pasta and ravioli.  It was smooth on the tongue with a gentle tooth. Al dente in Italian means to the tooth, or to the bite.  So when I say something has a gentle tooth or a toothsomeness, I am referring to the way it feels when I bite down.  When you were a child, did you ever bite into Silly Putty?  I did.  It's sort of like that.  Smooth  as your teeth are digging in and then a little final dull click through a thick ending.

That night was my first wheat pasta in over ten years.  And I won't confess how many years it's been since I bit into Silly Putty.

The wheat pasta made me feel nourished and satisfied by the time the second course arrived.  I fully expected to feel a twinge of regret the next day.  But, I did not.  Instead I felt strong, invigorated and curious to eat more Italian wheat.

The next day we visited San Cristoforo Azienda Agricola farm,
 where they grow ancient wheat, called Senatore Cappelli, that has not been hybridized a gizillion times in the last 10,000+ years.  

One of the reasons it's beneficial to study in Italy is because they still use so many ancient farming practices.  We have the most, early information about Roman agriculture.  In ancient times, Italy was mostly agricultural and it was passed down and in many cases still in use. (Gras, 51)

The entrance to the farm.

Driveway that we walked up from the bus that parked down below.  These are Tuscan hills.

The owner of the farm, Franco, standing next to our professor, Gigi, explaining and translating to us the mission and philosophy of his farm.  He and his wife dropped out of their high tech careers in Milan to buy this land and start growing healthy food.  Their soil, composting, selecting seeds (Farmer 142-3), animals, and simple crop and fallow system (E.B. 30-1) are in harmony so that they can avoid pesticides and grow food that tastes good and is wholesome and nutritious.

Franco's farm was featured recently on American Public Radio's The Splendid Table in an episode broadcast September 7, 2013,

Compost Pile
Cute Cow

Giddy Goat

Happy Horse

Cow Horns

And as I have learned over the years and admire of many farmers, particularly Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, all parts of the animal can be used on the farm.  Franco showed us his store of horns he uses to fertilize the soil.

And he grows more than just wheat.  He has orchards . . .

and an extended kitchen garden for his family.

Wheat stored.

Wheat Mill.

Franco holding the ancient wheat.

Wheat Lunch

Bruscetta, toast with pate, and I should have gone back to take close ups of the pasta because that is what I really fell in love with.  The toothsomeness of whole grain ancient pasta is like eating a whole meal in one bite.  If you've ever had a Guiness at the beginning of the evening so that you wouldn't have to eat dinner?  That's what this is like, so rich and fulfilling.

"Heritage grains are more delicious and more nutritious," says Eli Rogosa, founder of the Heritage Grain Conservancy, a Colrain, Mass., nonprofit working to save ancient wheat varieties from extinction. Modern wheat is bred for high yield, not for maximum nutrition, she says. ( Johannes, WSJ)

Wheat Dessert

If you are a berry-jam lover, this one is your dessert.  The ancient wheat crust was savory and crumbly with a soft center and slightly crisp outer edge.  The filling was thick with berries reduced as you would for jam and sweet like they were picked ripe from the vine, no added sugar, just all berry flavor.  You know that flavor.

Wheat Dessert No. 2

If you are a marmalade lover, this one is your dessert.  The crust was crunchy on the outside and soft with a solid tooth in the center.  The filling tingled the taste buds while the scent of fresh orange wafted up into the nostrils.  The thinly sliced oranges on top were chewy from baking, almost like candy, but it wasn't sweet - just deliciously orange.

The next day, nothing.  No adverse reaction to the gluten.  What's the deal?  Why is the wheat in Italy okay for me to eat?  Could it just be the organic biodynamic farming method?

That's all well and good, but we have amazing farmers in the United States too, biodynamic, organic,  Heirloom seeds, etc...  Our farmers, not the big ag, but the real farmers who still work the land and care about the soil and the animals and the plants - they didn't intend to grow wheat that someday a large percentage of the population would be intolerant of, allergic to or find toxic.  

So, what happened?

Hybridization happened.  Seed selection happened.  Let's start at the beginning.  

When the first hunter gatherers stopped following herds of animals all over the place and decided to plant some seeds and stay put for a while, the first farmers were born.  The first crop they planted was wheat.  The first wheat they planted was one they found in the wild called Einkorn (Triticum monococcum), in the Fertile Cresent that can still be found growing wild in Iraq (Wood 383) and Turkey.  For those first agrarians, domesticated Einkorn was being consumed along with emmer wheat, barely, bitter vetch, chick peas, flax, lentils and peas. (Snodgrass, 2. 574)  They even found evidence of Einkorn wheat in Ice Man's ember pouch. (Spindler, 225).

Two other wheats are also considered to be from that ancient beginning, Emmer (Triticum dicoccon) also known as faro.  

And Spelt (Triticum Spelta), thought to actually be the first cultivated wheat. (Guiliani, 3).  

My first loaf of Einkorn Wheat Bread.
Jovial Einkorn Wheat Flour
Dry Active Yeast
Sea Salt
The instructions were typical of any sandwich bread loaf, located on the side of the flour package.  In less than three hours I had wheat bread in my house.  I almost cried.  It was delicious.

Slice of ancient Einkorn wheat bread with butter.

Modern Wheat
Fast forward to the United States in the 19th century and wheat farms across the whole nation are struck with a disease called leaf rust or stripe rust.  It was a problem for decades.  "In 1926 all of the important varieties of wheat grown in the US were susceptible to one or more of the widely distributed forms of leaf rust." (USDA. 1927, 762).  It takes until the 1960s to breed resistance to this disease. (Singh, 1)

In addition to leaf rust, we were also trying to breed resistance to loose smut and just plain old hard, rainy weather that would cause long tall wheat to fall over and lose kernels into the soil.  (USDA 1927, 769).

Farmers being clever, survival-types and a little bit of American ingenuity combined together to save our wheat. And save it they did.  However, modern wheat does not completely resemble the ancient wheat and apparently the differences are what some of us are sensitive to.

The Wheat Belly author, Dr. William Davis, says that modern wheat is toxic.  Davis says that modern wheat causes all sorts of health problems common to us today and that we should not eat it.  He says it's okay to eat Einkorn and goes into detail about the number of chromosomes.  But I find I can eat more than just the Einkorn wheat.  I can also eat Franco's wheat from San Cristoforo.  In fact, I ate wheat for the second two weeks of my three weeks in Italy.

Others don't specify.  They say wheat is good, period.  "Wheat nurtures the heart and, as a cooling food and yin tonic, calms and focuses them and treats a wide range of stress and mental health symptoms.  It also supports the spleen, liver, and kidney meridians.  Whole wheat contains 12 B vitamins, vitamin E, protein, essential fatty acids, and important trace minerals such as zinc, iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorous.  Like rye, wheat is good for the musculature.  . . .it balances vata and pitta." (Wood, 384).

I believe it.  I feel great lately.  And I think there is something to it, most of us love wheat and prefere it over other grains.  "In 1918, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a bulletin urging Americans to eat more rice to save wheat for export to America’s European allies and because it was nutritious.  [However] It did not work.  Rice consumption remained low even after the war." (Elias, 27).

So there you have it.  My gluten-intolerant story of wheat is that I have a happy ending.  I can eat ancient wheat of many varieties.  

At a recent holiday gathering with my family, I made pasta from a local wheat my sister found and has been using, White Sonora Wheat, "one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties anywhere in North America." (Slow Food USA).

My sister made a stollen from the Sonora White Wheat.  It was one of the best stollens any of us could remember.  And again, no adverse reaction for my gluten-intolerant gut.

I plan to keep exploring and making a list.

Let me know if you have a similar story.  I would love to hear about your experience.


Gras, N.S.B. (1925).  A History of Agriculture in Europe and America. New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., Publishers.

San Cristoforo Biodynamic Farm in Tuscany

Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 08 Aug. 2013. <>.

Farmer, V. (1913) Roman Farm Management: The Treatises of Cato and Varro Done into English, with Notes of Modern Instances. New York, NY: The MacMillian Company.

Johannes, L.  Eating Like the Ancients:  Heirloom Grains Return.  Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved from

Great Food Finds: Top Pick of the Week.  The Nibble.  Retrieved from


Giuliani, A., Karagöz, A., Zencirci, N. (2006). Building the Market Chain: Emmer in Turkey: An ancient cereal maintained by mountain farmers.  Diversity for Livelihoods Programme of Bioversity International and the Global Facilitation Unit of Underutilized Species (GFU).

Unites States Department of Agriculture. (1927).  Yearbook of Agriculture 1926.  United States Government Printing Office, Washington, Author.

Singh, B., Bansal, U.K., Hare, R.A., Bariana, H.S. (2013). Genetic analysis of durable adult plant stripe rust resistance in durum wheat cultivars.  Austrailian Journal of Crop Science.  The University of Sydney PBI-Cobbity, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, Australia.

Davis, W., MD, (November 2012)  Wheat:  Unhealthy Whole Grain. presented at IHMC Convention Evening Lecture Series.  Florida Institute For Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC)  Retrieved from

Fussell, G.E. (1972) The Classical Tradition in West European Farming.  Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, Inc.

Manning, R. (2004). Against The Grain:  How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press.

Government Printing Office. (1916). Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture. Washington: Author.

Fortin, F. (1996).  The Visual Food Encyclopedia. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wood, R. (2010). The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. (P. Markel, illus.). New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Spindler, K. (1994). The Man in the Ice. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Snodgrass, M.E. (2013).  World Food: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Social Influence from Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Globalization.  Armonk, NY: Myron E. Sharpe, Inc.

Elias, M.J. (2009) Food in the United States, 1890-1945.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Slow Food USA.  Retrieved from