For thousands of years, we’ve been growing grains to turn into food. This is a tricky and lengthy process, so it has to be worth the effort. Some grains yield up more than others, while some are not quite what they seem. Take buckwheat as an example; its name comes from the Middle Dutch boecweite, or ‘beech-wheat’. The ‘beech’ part comes from its resemblance to the beechnut, while the ‘wheat’ element reflects our use of it as a cereal for at least the last 6,000 years. However, buckwheat is not a grass, so technically, neither is it a grain (there are other pseudo-cereals in our larder, such as quinoa, kañiwa, and amaranth). It is actually a fruit seed of a member of the rhubarb family, and related to sorrel. The first evidence of buckwheat cultivation is to be found in Eastern Europe, from where it spread to Asia and the Middle East, and then subsequently to Western Europe, and on to the Americas and Australia. Its French name, sarrasin, reflects its 8th century arrival with invading Saracen armies. Today, the republics of the former USSR account for 54% of world production, while China claims a further 38%.
Buckwheat seeds germinate astonishingly quickly – in just three to five days – and are mature in just 70 to 90 days. This quick-growing plant also suppresses weeds, thrives in poor, dry soils, grows at altitudes as high as the Tibetan Plateau, and is tolerant of salty soils where virtually every other crop will fail. It only rarely requires treatment with pesticides, which is good news for the beneficial insects it attracts, as well as for us; we get to enjoy the dark amber buckwheat honey. In nutritional terms, buckwheat has much in common with quinoa, but boasts a protein content second only to oats. Once the seeds have been removed from the dark hull, they are known as groats. Toast them in oil to remove the inherent bitterness, and they have a wonderful nutty sweetness. This is known as kasha in Slavic Europe, but beware; not all kasha is made from buckwheat. The name simply means ‘porridge’ and could just as easily be made from wheat, barley, rye, or millet. Buckwheat kasha is used in soups, stuffings, and salads. Ground into flour, it’s made into blini and blintz in Eastern Europe, while in France, it is transformed into crêpes and galettes. Further sound in Valtellina in Lombardy, you might come across pizzocheri, a pasta made with a 1:4 buckwheat to wheat flour ratio. The famous regional dish of the same name has cabbage, cheese, and potatoes added to the pasta pot. In Korea, thin, handmade buckwheat noodles are served in a cold broth, and known as naengmyeon (or raengmyeon north of the border), while the Japanese toast buckwheat for soba, used in tea or ground into flour to make soba noodles. Even the buckwheat hulls come in useful; they are used as a filling for homeopathic pillows.