Spelt bread, with its slightly nutty flavour, is rapidly winning consumer approval because of its perceived health properties.
Spelt is a very old kind of flour, first produced around 5,000 BC. It survived into medieval times and much of its heritage was protected by millers and bakers in Eastern Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe. Head of The National Bakery School in Dublin Derek O’Brien, who has been doing a lot of development work with spelt, says that products made from the flour have grown much in popularity since spelt flour was reintroduced in this part of the world in 1987.
"You can use either a one-hour or an overnight system, but the dough needs to be soft. It’s a special flour and needs to be treated accordingly," says O’Brien. He adds that apart from the fermentation system, no other special baking methods or production techniques have to be used. It’s a little more difficult to handle, but nothing too arduous.
He goes on to say that if the flour is used properly in the making of spelt bread, it is cost-effective. But he warns: "There’s no point in making spelt bread and selling it for the same price as wholemeal," given the price premium the bread can command.
Sourcing spelt flour isn’t a problem for the School; supplies are readily available from Irish Bakery Suppliers in Cork, which supplies Ballybrado, the only spelt flour produced in Ireland, or from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire.
So far, artisan bakers in Ireland have taken up the spelt bread theme with some considerable success, such as Denise O’Callaghan’s Delicious Bakery in Cork and Alan and Zoe Tennyson’s Artisan Breads in Bandon, Co Cork.
One Irish bakery that makes no bones about spelling out the health benefits of spelt bread is O’Sullivan’s, in Killorglin, Co Kerry. It says that spelt flour offers 50% [more?] amino acid than wheat, more Vitamin B, higher levels of fibre, more protein and special carbo-hydrates that help reduce blood clotting and make the body more resistant to infection. It’s low in gluten, easily digested and, in general, is better tolerated by the body than any other grains.
O’Sullivan’s has been using spelt flour since 2005 to make three varieties of bread: white sliced, brown sliced and honey seeded. At present, the bakery is making 3,000 units a month, baking these products twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Helen O’ Sullivan, daughter of Gearoid O’ Sullivan, the managing director, says: "There’s interest in spelt bread throughout the country and we find demand increasing all the time."
While many artisan bakeries around Ireland have taken up the spelt bread cause, the plant bakeries haven’t, as they prefer flour that’s easier to handle. But Derek O’Brien sees no reason why spelt flour cannot be used in larger-scale production. It can also be used in certain types of confectionery, although that hasn’t happened in Ireland, where spelt flour is confined to bread.
A close working relationship with the leading German master bakers’ school, at Weinheim, near Heidelberg, has been developed at the National Bakery School; Germany has stronger historical links with the use of spelt in baking. O’Brien says that many consumers are now aware of the reputed health benefits of bread made from spelt flour, which he says should only be used in a natural fermen-tation system.
The School part of the Dublin Institute of Technology does a BSc course in baking and pastry arts management and also runs a professional baking programme; spelt bread now features strongly. The school uses many old spelt recipes that it has tweaked for modern production. This new academic year, 92 full-time students will enrol, meaning a record number will be learning about the commercial potential of spelt and, who knows, might eventually introduce spelt into Ireland’s plant bakeries.