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26 October 2008
World's oldest cooked cereal was instant

European diners around 8,000 years ago could enjoy a bowl of instant wheat cereal that, aside from uneven cooking and maybe a few extra lumps, wasn't very different from hot wheat cereals served today, suggests a new study that describes the world's oldest known cooked cereal. Dating from between 5920 to 5730 BCE, the ancient cereal consisted of parboiled bulgur wheat that Early Neolithic Bulgarians could refresh in minutes with hot water. "People boiled the grain, dried it, removed the bran and ground it into coarse particles," lead author Soultana-Maria Valamoti said. "In this form, the cereal grain can be stored throughout the year and consumed easily, even without boiling, by merely soaking in hot water," added Valamoti, an assistant professor of archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. She and her colleagues studied the Bulgarian grain, excavated at a site called Kapitan Dimitrievo, as well as 4,000-year-old grains of barley and wheat from northern Greece. Very high magnification by microscope revealed precise details about the individual cereal grains, including their composition.
     The analysis showed that starch within the Bulgarian grains was swollen, twisted and, at times, fused together. Such starch modifications were more extreme toward the outer layers of the bulgur, consistent with grains that had been penetrated by boiling water. The grains had also been charred - not in a way indicative of intentional toasting, but rather by a fire that appears to have burnt down the houses where the grain was stored. The scientists also cooked and processed modern wheat and hulled barley, putting the results through the same analysis. The fine details and internal structure of the modern boiled, dried and ground cereals matched what the researchers saw in the ancient Bulgarian grains.
     "I think bulgur could have well been a staple ingredient of Mediterranean cultures in the past," Valamoti said. "It is very nutritious and easy to make a meal out of it throughout the year, once it is prepared."
She explained that the early southeastern Europeans must have gathered it in the summer, when they could have dried it under the hot sun. Such early, simple preparations passed down through the generations, leading to dishes still enjoyed in the region and other parts of the world today. "Bulgur and trachanas (preparations often consisting of ground grain mixed with milk or yogurt) were staple foods of Greek people until very recently," she said.
     Stefanie Jacomet, a leading archaeobotanist at Basel University's Institute of Prehistory and Archaeological Science in Switzerland, said that "until now, simply almost nothing was known about this," explaining that this latest study is the first to explore ancient cooked cereal in such detail. Other researchers have, however, analyzed early evidence for bread-making in the same regions. The first known bread predates the cereal, so it's possible the ancients enjoyed some toast with their hot, cooked bulgur. Valamoti is currently working on a book that will describe early cooking methods and recipes, all of which are coming to light thanks to high-tech equipment and analysis methods.

Source: Discovery News (24 October 2008)

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