Farro, an ancient grain similar to barley, has a long and glorious history. The original grain from which all others derive, Mediterranean and Near Eastern populations used Farro as a staple food in their diet for thousands of years. It was later the standard ration of the Roman Legions that expanded throughout the Western World. Farro was also the chief ingredient for the Roman poor, who used to grind this grain into a paste and then cook it to a thick polenta-like paste called puls.

Important as farro was, it was also difficult to work with, possessing a low yield per acre, and with ripening grains that fall easily to the ground before they can be harvested. The grain is also difficult to process because the hull stays attached and must be manually removed. In the centuries following the fall of the Empire, higher yielding grains were developed and farro cultivation dwindled. By the turn of the century, there were a few hundred of acres of fields scattered over the regions of Lazio, Umbria, the Marches and Tuscany, where it grows on dry hillsides 1,000 feet above sea level.

Farro would probably still be an exceptionally local specialty had the farmers of the French Haute Savoie not begun to supply it to elegant restaurants that showcased it in hearty vegetable soups and other dishes. It is said that their success sparked renewed interest in farro among gastronomes, and now the grain is enjoying a renaissance of popularity in Italy.

So what exactly is Farro? Farro is an unhybridized form of wheat with its husk intact, which gives it a full-bodied, nutty and hearty flavor similar to barley, which works especially well with robust flavors of meat, red wine, and onions. Cooked farro will have a chewy yet firm texture, which it will retain even when reheated. Spelt (triticum spelta) is often confused with farro, but it is much less common. Spelt looks like farro and has a farro-like husk, but it is a soft grain that turns pasty and mushy when cooked (and has a rather flat taste).

Farro is planted in October and early November and then harvested in early June. It is a fantastic source of protein, fiber, and the antioxidant Vitamin E. ¬†Allegedly, it can even boost sexual stamina. What’s more, farro is low in gluten, so people who are intolerant to modern varieties of wheat can usually digest farro with few problems. Another interesting benefit of this hardy husk is that it tends to protect the grains from insects, so growers can avoid using pesticides.

Before preparing farro, make sure to wash it well, picking out impurities such as bits of chaff, pebbles, or bad grains, and soak it for at least 8 hours. It will keep in this soaked state for a few days if refrigerated. Farro is sold in most specialty and health food stores or online at Salumeria Italiana.