Buckwheat is a grain in a dark-coloured husk. It arrived in Europe via Russia in the late Middle Ages and was used to supplement the harvest of basic cereals. This undemanding plant grows quickly and easily, and established itself particularly well in regions with poor soil. It is rarely grown nowadays. Buckwheat alone cannot be used to make bread, but is used to prepare porridge and polenta, and especially for pancakes and flatbread.
Where buckwheat spread
Buckwheat originated in northern China. Archaeological finds have dated the cultivation of buckwheat as early as 2600 BCE. Sarrasin, the French name for this grain, might suggest that it arrived in Europe via the Arabs, known as Saracens in the Middle Ages. This is however not the case. It came to Russia from Mongolia, probably in the 14th century. It then gradually spread throughout Europe, from the north to the south. After Poland, Germany, Belgium and France, it became established in Spain in the 17th century. It may also have reached Europe via Anatolia. Buckwheat is also called brank, beech wheat or Saracen corn, depending on the region.
Buckwheat is not a crop which has distinguished a civilisation, as wheat or rice have. Instead, its role has been to supplement other harvests. However, it did become a staple food in regions with poor soil, where it is difficult to grow cereals. Buckwheat became particularly well established in Brittany and the alpine valleys. One tenth of the harvest was given to masters. However, such tithing did not apply to buckwheat. It is also grown in Switzerland, in Ticino, the Grisons and in the Poschiavo Valley. It has the advantage of being able to be cultivated on fallow land and as a catch crop, that is, between two other main crops.
Production of buckwheat reached its peak in the 19th century. Like millet and spelt, it then began to decline and today it is in danger of disappearing altogether. In France, 600 000 hectares of buckwheat were grown in 1890, compared to just 2750 in 2003.
Although buckwheat has more or less the same nutritional values as wheat, it is erroneously associated with cereals. Botanically speaking, it belongs to the Polygonaceae family, alongside sorrel and rhubarb. It is not difficult to grow as it adapts to poor, sandy, clay or acidic soils and is extremely resistant, making insecticides unnecessary.
Buckwheat is generally sown in June as it is sensitive to frost. It starts to flower one month later and harvesting takes place between 90 and 120 days after sowing. The plants can grow up to 70 cm tall and their fruit contain just one single triangular seed enclosed in a black husk which is removed before the seed is eaten. The triangular shape of the seeds, resembling beech nuts, explains why it is also called beech wheat. The plant’s melliferous flowers attract bees and thus serve to produce honey.
Buckwheat does not contain gluten and therefore cannot be used to make bread unless it is added to cereals. It can be used directly in seed form, made into a gruel, porridge or polenta. Polenta nera is found in the Tyrol and polenta storna in Ticino.
When ground into flour, buckwheat can be used in several recipes. It is used to make galettes and crêpes in Brittany, North Germany and North America. In Russia, it is used to make blinis. It is also used to make noodles in Japan and China, and pasta in Italy and Switzerland, in Poschiavo and in the Valtellina, where the traditional pizzoccheri are still made.
Flandrin, Jean-Louis (dir.), 1996. Les temps modernes. In : Histoire de l’alimentation. 1996. pp. 549 à 576. Paris : Fayard.
Hemardinquer, Jean-Jacques, 1964. Recherches sur l’introduction et la diffusion du sarrasin notamment en Lyonnais et Bas-Dauphiné. Bulletin philologique et historique (jusqu’à 1610) du Comité des travaux historiques et publics. 1964. pp. 307-318.
Du Pontavice, Bleuzen, 2005. Le blé noir. Spézet : Éditions Coop breizh.