At Bondir in Cambridge, a little savory tart represents edible history in many corners of the world. Made with chestnut flour, it has the seductive aromas of roasted nuts, butter, and caramelized cheese, and the round is garnished with a confit of shallots and delicate pieces of puffed amaranth barely larger than the eye of a sewing needle.
Chestnut flour, once favored in ancient Rome, became the staff of life for many Italians during World War II, when they turned the nuts into flour. Amaranth is an Aztec grain that dates at least 8,000 years. Teff, eaten primarily in northeast Africa, and prominently used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine to make the flatbread injera, has been cultivated for thousands of years as well.
Over the last few years, these and other Old World grains, which vegan, vegetarian, and naturally minded cooks discovered years ago, have been popping up more at local establishments. Many are free of the modification and hybridization found in modern species, which is one reason for their recent popularity. There’s also more of an interest in heirloom foods, the movement against mass-produced commercially grown foods, and the growing population of those with allergies or gluten intolerance (which requires chefs to have knowledge of gluten-free grains and offer those options). Above all, unusual grains give chefs versatile and creative ways to garnish their plates.
“Ancient grains bring eye-popping novelty,” writes Maria Speck, author of “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” in an e-mail. “They give chefs amazing textures and distinct flavors, and even stunning colors to play with,” says Speck, who lives in Cambridge but grew up in Germany and Greece, where spelt, rye, bulgur, and whole-wheat berries are part of the culinary repertoire.
At Abby Park in Milton, chef Tony DeRienzo recently unveiled his “super natural” menu, which includes quinoa, among other so-called superfoods. “Quinoa is a complete protein,” says DeRienzo, who adheres to a low-fat, nutrient-rich diet. “You can substitute it for meat or fish, and it just so happens that it’s great for the restaurant for vegetarians, so they can get their protein.” Quinoa, native to the Andes region of South America, primarily in Bolivia, has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years because of its high nutritional content. It was once a staple of the Inca diet.
Once you start experimenting with grains, says Bondir chef and owner Jason Bond, their versatility is lots of fun. Old World grains, he says, are “an ingredient you kind of don’t think about as much as carrots, beets, potatoes, and the center-plate stars.”
“I started working with these grains a long time ago,” says Dave Punch, who with Lydia Reichert is co-chef and co-owner of Sycamore in Newton, which opened last month. “Grains are just part of my repertoire.” Reichert and Punch get their grains from Anson Mills, a highly regarded grower based in South Carolina that specializes in heirloom grains. When the two sat down to write the menu, says Punch, “we were, like, let’s get their stuff in and then base dishes around it.”
At the restaurant, farro appears in a variety of ways, including in a vegetarian choux farci — French stuffed cabbage — that includes farro verde. “The grains kind of break up a little, like rice middlins,” says Punch. “So it cooks up a little bit creamier, and it has this crazy smoky flavor. It’s so good.” Farro verde is made from green farro, which is harvested before the grains dry. They are fire-threshed in their hulls, which eventually burn off, leaving the grain intact because of its moisture content. The process results in the earthy smokiness Punch likes.
Farro is grown primarily in Italy but is the same grain as emmer wheat, which originates in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. “Farro is the oldest progenitor of all modern wheat,” says Eli Rogosa, facilitator and coordinator of the Heritage Grain Conservancy in Colrain and the website Growseed.org.
Domesticated forms of emmer date to ancient Egypt, and desiccated loaves of bread made from emmer flour have been found in Egyptian tombs dating more than 5,000 years.
Restaurant customers are often surprised to find these ancient grains coming out of the kitchen. At a recent dinner at West Bridge restaurant in Cambridge, Speck noticed four grains on the menu, including farro and freekeh. “Now that’s change,” she says.
You’re likely to be seeing more of freekeh, a type of roasted wheat, and kañiwa, a tinier relative of quinoa. Then there are all the Old World grains that never went away: buckwheat, rye, oats, and barley among others, which are grains grandmothers turned into kasha, bread, porridge, and soups.
Ultimately, the ancient roots and health benefits of grains are overshadowed by a more decisive factor. “We’re not cooking them because they kind of became in vogue,” says Sycamore’s Punch. “We’re just cooking them because they taste wicked good.”
Several heirloom grain farms are located in Massachusetts, including Four Star Farms in Northfield (www.fourstarfarms.com ), whose grains are sold at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750, and at Water Fresh Farm, 151 Hayden Rowe St.,Hopkinton, 508-435-3400; and White Oak Farm in Belchertown (https://sites.google.com/site/whiteoakfarmgrainshare).
Matt Barber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.