A NY Times Magazine article by Heidi Julavits describes a problem I have run across a few times: incorrect foreign-language equivalents.
The New Year’s Eve dinner party in question has since gone down in our family annals as the Night of the Great Spelt Screw-Up. We were making, or intending to make, farro, an ancient wheat variety that can be cooked risotto-style with broth, butter and Parmesan. Unfortunately there was no farro to be found at the nearby Whole Foods. Blinded by a flash of substitution brilliance, I bought two pounds of spelt from the dry-goods aisle, recalling that I’d heard somewhere that farro was the fancy Italian word for the far-less-fancy-sounding “spelt.”
Spelt, to my eye, didn’t look like farro, and from a stovetop behavioral standpoint, it quickly distinguished itself. In a panic I called my personal farro expert, Jennifer DeVore, explaining I couldn’t find farro so instead I bought. . . . “Oh, no,” she interrupted. “You didn’t buy spelt.” Farro cooks in about 45 minutes; we cooked our spelt for four hours, and even then the result was extremely al dente. We threw in multiple sticks of butter, gallons of stock and $13 worth of grated Parmesan, but the spelt remained stoically flavor-impervious. We served it anyway. Contrary to the claims of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century spelt enthusiast, our guests did not find that eating it “makes the spirit of man light and cheerful.”
Mocked for my farro-equals-spelt assumption, I tried to exonerate myself by proving just how widespread is this misperception. Google “farro (spelt),” and you’ll get 2,100 hits, many for recipes that claim the grains can be used interchangeably. Even my family’s cookbook hero, Suzanne Goin, makes this claim in “Sunday Suppers at Lucques”: “Farro, also known as spelt, is probably my all-time favorite grain.” She cooks hers simply, in parsley and butter, or bulks it up with kabocha squash and cavolo nero. Farro is also wonderful in soups, like the hearty farro-and-kale soup in Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox’s new cookbook, “Olives & Oranges.” (It’s clearly gaining ground. Recently, 2 of the 17 contestants on “Top Chef” offered dishes containing farro.) But Harold McGee, in “On Food and Cooking,” clarifies that farro is the Italian word for emmer wheat; of spelt, which he calls “remarkable” for its high protein content, he says, “Often confused with emmer (farro).”