Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
May 31, 2023
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Mangia Bene

The origins of buckwheat (Fagopyrum sagittatum syn. F.esculentum) were long thought to be in central Asia, somewhere between Lake Baikal and Manchuria. Recent research now leans toward southwest China and the Himalayan region as the center of origin[i]. It is considered a cereal although it does not belong to the same Gramineae family as it is a grass.

Buckwheat is known as grano saraceno in Italian and sarrasin in French, leading the late food writer Waverly Root to assume its Arab or Muslim origins. But the term “Saracen” was used by Europeans of the Middle Ages to describe many things that simply came from the East, whether they were known to be Arab or not. According to the contemporary Italian botanist Valerio Giacomini, who has made a thorough study of buckwheat there are three possible ways buckwheat arrived in Europe: the first route goes through southern Russia, Poland, Germany reaching Belgium and France where buckwheat appears; the second runs through Turkey, to Greece, Hungary, and southern Russia; and the third through the maritime contacts of Venice, which might explain in part the ascription of “Saracen.”

In any case the origin of buckwheat is unknown even if its name in Latin languages suggests an Arab provenance. There is a legend that Joost van Gistele brought it back with him from his journey to the Holy Land in 1485. The Arab, and even central Asian origin has been contradicted by recent archeological research. It has come to light through pollen analysis that buckwheat grew in the Netherlands and north-west Germany long before the beginning of our era. The first documentary evidence is of four malder boicweyts supplied in 1394 in Middelaar, near Mook (Netherlands) to the Duke of Gelre (Silcher). This date is the earliest documentary evidence we have for buckwheat in Europe.[ii]

[i] See Ohnishi, Ohmi, “Search for the Wild Ancestor of Buckwheat. III. The Wild Ancestor of Cultivated Common Buckwheat, and of Tartary Buckwheat,” Economic Botany, 52 (2), 1998, pp. 123-33.

[ii] Slicher van Bath, B. H., The Agrarian History of Western Europe A.D. 500-1850, Olive Ordish, trans. London: Edward Arnold, 1963, p. 264; Root, Waverly, Food: An Authoritative, Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, New York: Fireside, 1980, pp. 39-40; Bianchini, F. and F. Corbetta, The Complete Book of Fruits and Vegetables, Italia and Alberto Mancinelli, trans. New York: Crown, 1976, pp. 28-29.