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.