How wheat changed the world

wheatIn his beautiful book, Fifty Plants that changed the course of historyBill Laws has gathered many stories about important food. He has the following to say about ‘Common Wheat’ (Triticum aestivum):

“Without bread wheat, Europe might still be stranded in the Dark Ages. Civilisations are fuelled by their foods, and in temperate climates the fuel of choice was wheat.” (p.190)

“Grains are the most important plants in the world. Every granule is a neatly packaged food store filled with energising starches, proteins, minerals and vitamins. Grains are not only edible; they are also portable, storable, and can be turned into bread – 5,000-year-old loaves have been discovered in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Wheat grains were almost certainly the first crops brought into cultivation by Stone Age people and they have fed much of the world and its farm animals ever since.” (p.190)

Laws connects wheat (and bread) with the French Revolution, the Fall of the Roman Empire and the shift to feudalism in Europe – three major parts of history! He writes:

“When a traveller from France arrived in Britain in 330 BCE, he noted that wheat fields were already growing in the southeast of England. A century later, when Rome sent its invasion forces out to conquer new territories in Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, Egypt and Spain, it was specifically to provide the empire with fresh wheat. When Vespasian became emperor after Neros death in 69 CE, Egypt alone was supplying an estimated 20 million bushels of wheat a year. Wheat was power.
The collapse of the Roman Empire was accompanied by the loss of the wheat fields. They were not absent for long. In Europe, farming with slaves was giving way to farming through feudalism. In return for their lordship’s protection, the serfs laboured his land and the cash crop, once again, was wheat….” (p.192)

The architecture of wheat

Fifty Plants that changed the course of historyLaws points out that “No other plant has so transformed the rural skyline as wheat. Aside from the mills, barns, granaries and grain silos used to process and store grain, there were the great cathedral-like ‘English’ or aisled barns. Built as big as a village church, they contained storage bays for the wheat sheaves and a central threshing bay, set between two great doors opposite one another. During threshing or winnowing – the two processes used to separate the grains from the chaff – the huge doors would be opened to create a cross-breeze to blow away the chaff.” (p.193)

Pasta (and durum wheat (T. durum)

Laws also mentions pasta, writing: “Pasta is the everyday food for millions of Italians. Emigrants shipped their pasta products and pizza with them when they left their impoverished country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and set up home in North America. … pasta comes from flour milled from durum wheat (T. durum) that, with its high gluten content, keeps its elasticity when wetted. Second in importance to bread wheat, durum is grown in the Mediterranean, Russia, Asia and North and South America.” (p.197)

Ref: Bill Laws (2011) Fifty Plants that changed the course of history. Crows Nest NSW: Crows Nest (an imprint of Allen & Unwin)

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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