Senatore Cappelli’s Flour Power

The ancient wheat variety is rediscovered

Whipping up some orecchiette using Senatore Cappelli flour in Italy.

Whipping up some orecchiette using Senatore Cappelli flour in Italy.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY CHRISTY

When we left you last month, we were in Panificio La Maggiore, the bakery in the Puglia region along the southeastern coast of Italy, where we found the famous bread Pane di Altamura. As we were finishing our conversation with owner Giuseppe Barile, we noticed a poster advertising a flour called Senatore Cappelli. Then we saw a handwritten sign above loaves of bread made with the flour. The loaves were smaller than Pane di Altamura, and the proffered sample displayed a really nice crust and a memorable golden color. It was delicious.

Senatore Cappelli flour is named for Raffaele Cappelli, a politician and agronomist from Abruzzo who, in the early twentieth century, was a promoter of land reforms allowing experimental plant sowings that resulted in, among other things, the present-day distinction between durum wheat and tender or bread wheat. Because it was introduced in 1915, it is considered an ancient variety of modern durum wheat. It eventually fell out of favor because it didn’t have the yields of more modern varieties and it was a pain to harvest because the plants could be six feet tall. But over the past twenty years, Senatore Cappelli has been “rediscovered,” and is currently being grown “from a few, exclusively organic farms in the pristine hills of Marche, Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy.”

As such it is perhaps another example of the growing interest, championed by Slow Food, among others, in identifying endangered, heritage varieties or species and working to preserve them. But one aspect of our conversation in the bakery really piqued our interest. Our host said Senatore Cappelli flour was known for being easily digestible and, we thought he implied, suitable to people with Celiac disease. Whoa. Wouldn’t it be amazing if an organically grown, heritage variety of wheat, freshly rediscovered, could be tolerated by someone with Celiac disease?

The flour, and wheat from which it is made, certainly has a wide reputation for being healthier than other varieties. One source says “Senatore Cappelli contains higher percentages of lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.” Another says it is “known for its health benefits.” And we liked that because the wheat is structurally original to its 1915 introduction, it does not require chemical treatments of pesticides or herbicides. But Celiac tolerable? That required further study.

Fortunately we found the resources we needed right here in Madison. Calls to food and dairy specialist Bob Carrier with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Division of Food Safety, and Barb Ingham, a food science specialist at UW–Extension, put us in touch with Julie Dawson, an assistant professor in UW–Madison’s Department of Horticulture. Dawson told us that while she has worked with a lot of historic wheat varieties, she hadn’t grown Senatore Cappelli herself. But she found reference to it as a test variety. “All the wheat varieties in [that] study were potentially toxic to Celiac patients,” Dawson told us, “but gluten intolerance [as opposed to true Celiac disease] hasn’t been well studied.”

So, Senatore Cappelli isn’t the break-through we’d hoped for. But we still welcome its return to production.

Two days later, we visited the Masseria Salinola agriturismo in Ostuni. Daniele, the owner, and more importantly, his mother, Lucia, offered to teach us how to make orecchiette, the pasta they would be serving for dinner. We gathered in the kitchen and made the “little ears” of pasta using, to our delight, Senatore Cappelli flour. It was a wonderful experience that made for a wonderful meal and a wonderful memory worthy of adding to our collection of genuine articles.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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