When New London native Carla Bartolucci had her first child in 2000, a daughter she and husband Rodolfo Viola christened Giulia, she “seemed to be sick from the moment she was born,” Bartolucci remembers. Years upon years of stomach disturbances, asthma, headaches and even hair loss followed, until a doctor told Bartolucci that if Giulia eliminated gluten from her diet, her symptoms would disappear. “But I didn’t want her to have to do that,” Bartolucci says. “I didn’t want hers to be a life ‘without.’ I wanted her to have a full life.” And a full life, as far as this family of robust Italian heritage was concerned, should include the opportunity to savor a wide array of dishes made from Earth’s bountiful offerings.
“This pumpkin spice bundt cake is moist and perfectly spiced and it presents itself beautifu…
“Giulia did not have celiac disease,” explains Bartolucci, but was diagnosed with a “sensitivity” to gluten, “so my husband and I felt like maybe there was something out there that she could tolerate. Maybe there was a different type of wheat we had never heard of.” And so the pair, who met in Bologna in the 1980s, where the Connecticut College student studying Italian was introduced to a handsome Italian studying agriculture, decided to do some research. The result? Little Giulia’s mom and dad helped save an ancient grain called einkorn from the brink of extinction and changed the course of their daughter’s life/health in the process. Never underestimate the force of nature that is a parent’s love.
Einkorn is indeed an ancient, almost mythical grain. Archaeological findings show that humans in western Asia’s Fertile Crescent gathered wild einkorn during the Paleolithic Era tens of thousands of years ago, and that when the first farmers thought to begin planting einkorn seeds, the crop nourished the planet’s first civilizations. In fact, Bartolucci reports, when “Ötzi the Iceman” was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 after being preserved in a glacier for more than 5,000 years, einkorn grains were found on his fur “coat” and among the contents of his stomach.
So what happened? Why haven’t we grown up with einkorn-rich products on the shelves at Stop & Shop? As with many things in life, it comes down to money. Ancient einkorn, the only wheat that has never been hybridized, was abandoned some 5,000 years ago, Bartolucci says, because, in short, it offers only one fifth the yield of other wheats. In 2009, when the dedicated parents stumbled upon a group of Italian researchers working to save the grain they hoped would be a healthy option for their daughter, there were less than 200 acres of einkorn left worldwide. So they worked with local farmers to plant some. And when they made the joyous discovery that Giulia could indeed tolerate einkorn, they planted still more. Jovial Foods, the company Bartolucci and Viola founded in 2010, is now the largest grower of einkorn in the world with more than 3,000 acres planted.
“Einkorn has been a gift to our family,” says Bartolucci, one they are honored to share. The “greatest thing about it,” she adds, “is that it actually tastes really, really good: milky, almost buttery” — and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it has 30 percent more protein and 15 percent less starch than commercial wheat. Jovial Foods contracts directly with a network of family-owned organic farms in Italy to grow the grain, which Bartolucci and family manage, as they like to say, “from seed to shelf.”
As for that gluten, “einkorn actually has more gluten than modern wheat,” Bartolucci explains, “but because the gluten is very weak, we don’t have the same problem digesting it.” The trade-off? Baking with einkorn can take some getting used to. “The dough is not very elastic and can get sticky,” warns Bartolucci — but don’t worry: she’s on that, too.
Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat (Clarkson Potter, 2015), Bartolucci’s first cookbook, features 100 recipes she developed for working with the grain and its flour, and she is working on a second, due out in 2021. In 2012 she began offering cooking retreats at a villa in Tuscany by their main factory. And in 2016 Jovial Foods held the grand opening of its world headquarters at the historic 1685 John Randall Homestead in North Stonington. “I’ve discovered that I really like connecting with people over food,” says Bartolucci, whose family splits its time between Italy and Connecticut. “It’s pretty magical; I love where I come from, and so I wanted to expand that connection to Connecticut.”
Jovial Food’s many products, among them einkorn flours, crackers, cookies and pasta, are distributed from the 28-acre property, whose restoration is well underway. Plans include an organic farm and orchard, an inn, those cooking classes and retreats, and a restaurant scheduled to open in 2021. “I’ve lived half my life in Connecticut and half in Italy,” Bartolucci says. “The menu will be a reflection of my life and the ingredients I love.” Ancient einkorn, we have no doubt, will be at the top of the list.