There are a lot of Italian regional specialties that have yet to make it to the United States in general and Chicagoland in particular.
Grano arso, or burnt wheat, is one of those specialties. Though it may have appeared on some Chicago menus in the past century or so, I'd never seen it until last Friday, when I was invited by Chef John Coletta of Quartino to try some focaccia, pizza and pasta made with this stuff. Coletta is working to reintroduce grano arso in collaboration with Antonino Esposito, an Italian chef and pizza professional.
Grano arso is basically ash that's left when wheat fields are burned after the upper part of the wheat shaft has been harvested. This is the food of the poor, and the ash is actually a kind of "extender" for the wheat flour.
This may sound weird, but ash has also a common ingredient (or agent) in food of the Americas.
Ash is used in Latin America as a way of softening corn kernals to render the hard outer husk softer and the corn easier to grind. Ash is alkaline, like lime, which is also used in this ancient process of nixtamalization, used by Maya, Aztec and other First Nations people (I'm done using the term "indigenous" to humans except as it applies to certain peoples of Africa; I prefer the Canadian designation, First Nations; it makes more historical sense).
In Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, a book due out early next month, I found a reference to using ash in some cake recipes. The intent seems to have been to make the cake lighter.
Ash is often used in cheese making. In Morbier cheese, for instance, available at Marion Street Cheese Market and elsewhere, there's ash included to separate the milk gathered in the evening and the morning.
Rene Redzepi of Noma in Cophenhagen, #1 on the San Pellegrino List of World's Best Restaurants, is also experimenting with ash as an ingredient. He says it adds a "bitter" note, and this thought was echoed by Coletta: "The crust on the pizza is un po amaro."
So using ash as an ingredient is not so. It makes economic sense as an extender, and it makes culinary sense as a carrier of bitter flavors. It may even have a slight health advantage.
"Eighty percent of the gluten is removed from burnt grain," Coletta told me, "although, of course, the people of Puglia in the nineteenth century didn't care much if there was gluten in there or not."
The cooking techniques required to handle grano arso are a little different than they would be for regular flour. For example, for focaccia, said Coletta, "we ferment the dough [allow the dough to rise] for forty-eight hours," which is more than forty-four hours than you'd normally need to let dough rise.
So how was it?
The focaccia (pictured) was much chewier than I'd expected, and the pizza was much crunchier, though both of these features could have been the result of cooking techniques rather than ingredients. The pizza (with anchovies, olives, garlic, and basil) was wonderful. We also had a pasta that was absolutely stunning, with rabe and tomatoes…but I'm not sure how much of that good flavor was due to the grano arso. If anything, this ash flour seems to maybe have toned down the flavors of the focaccia, pizza and pasta. Familiar foods made with grano arso seemed to taste different.
Outside after dinner, I ran into one of Chicago's better known food commentators who had the same meal as we did. "It was good," was this critic's opinion, "but not life-changing."
I'd agree. Still, I had a good time eating this stuff. It was fun having focaccia, pizza and pasta that was just a little bit different. It was fun seeing these dishes done in just a slightly different way. Plus, there was less gluten.
What I liked best about this dinner, though, was a chance to try grano arso, an ingredient that is probably as unknown in Chicago as it is in, say Turin, whose citizens consider Puglia about as foreign as would someone from Oak Park.
Grano arso is part of lesser known Italian culinary history. For that reason alone, it's worthy of exploration.