I am a Castiglione farmer, this is my field of hulled wheat… well, it’s easy to say it’s mine, it belonged to my father as well as my grandfather, among the very few that maintained their love and care for this grain. There was a time when wheat was never on the kitchen table, even in periods of famine. “It’s chicken food”, they foolishly would say. Of course, someone like my grandfather guarded its secret: “it ensures long life”, he would say, and there was always enough to sprinkle on top of his favourite soups. There were even some restaurant owners from Lucca who would come ‘round these parts to bring back down a small bale of wheat. Its thanks to them that this seed was saved, otherwise it would have been swallowed by decades of indifference.
The most primitive of grains, it was cited in both the Bible and by Herodotus. Archaeologists believe it came from the fertile crescent situated between Assyria and Egypt, farmed in the cradle of civilization. The Greeks rejected barley in favour of wheat. In Italy it arrived in the 5th century BCE, and was the favoured food of the Etruscans, whereas the Romans ground it to make polenta. Sacred to the cult of Ceres, wheat was used to pay soldiers and was the traditional gift of the bride to her husband on their wedding day. Un-yeasted focaccia made of wheat, the libum, was also a traditional present given on the Roman new year.
It’s true, with the passing of centuries, that wheat gave way to other grains, its farmed lands were reduced and became increasingly confined to the arduous mountainsides. Fewer and fewer remained, with some fields among the Umbrian hills and those of Le Marche, but especially between the Garfagnana mountains.
What most didn’t predict is that its course was destined to be yet again reinvented. After the war, the restaurant owners of Lucca kept buying ever more wheat. This novelty spread by word of mouth and infected lovers of cuisine and the first tourists who crossed once again the Serchio river in search of the legendary soup. It became evident that you could somehow make use of the wheat; perhaps even hope in the rebirth across all our land. Few had sold their lands in these parts, even those that had left for America had kept hold of them, and many at this point began to imitate my grandfather and farm the grain which had remained hidden between the gorge of our valleys.
Garfagnana thus became the land of excellence for wheat, which grows high and proud with large, white, regular grains. Rather than soaking it the night before, all it needs is a rinse, with the best specimens produced by us. In fact, our wheat is among the first ‘peasant cooking’ ingredients to be awarded the IGP European quality mark back in the mid-1990s. Today there are about 80 of us that farm it, and I’m not the only one in Castiglione, as there are fields in all the municipalities. It’s produced by connoisseurs, and ends after a few weeks. We sow at the end of October on fields with a light slope and by February the plant shoots break through the frost. We don’t use pesticides and let them grow like a liana until late spring