SKOWHEGAN — Before the rise of modern-day wheat — grown for easy harvest and to produce fluffy industrial breads — there were ancient wheat varieties such as einkorn, emmer, spelt and kamut — some of which are still found in Maine.

Maria Speck, an authority on the ancient grains, will be one of the keynote speakers this year at the eighth annual Kneading Conference, scheduled for Thursday and Friday at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds.

“She’ll be talking about claims that those grains are easier to digest or perhaps good for people with gluten sensitivity, where to find them and how to cook and bake with them,” said Amber Lambke, co-founder of the conference sponsor Maine Grain Alliance.

Speck is the author of “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” a cookbook for which she was honored with the Julia Child Award, given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She is scheduled to speak at 9:15 a.m. Thursday.

Lambke, who also is the co-founder of the Somerset Grist Mill in the former county jail in downtown Skowhegan, said that last year, the mill processed about 1,000 pounds of emmer, a hulled, ancient grain, grown organically on a farm in Albion. It was sold to bakers for bread and as whole-wheat berries for meals. The supply quickly sold out, Lambke said.

Emmer was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, a region that spans the Middle East, and was the primary wheat grown in Asia, Africa and Europe throughout the first 5,000 years of recorded agriculture, more than 17,000 years ago.

Speck also will talk about einkorn, another heritage variety of grain said to be man’s first form of cultivated wheat.

“Einkorn is one of the varieties that is included in a seed propagation project being run by the Maine Grain Alliance right now,” Lambke said. “One of the limitations of growing einkorn in Maine is seed availability. We need to exponentially increase the supply of seed.”

Lambke said her group has yet to find a good source for organic spelt, but several farmers in Maine are growing it this summer for the grist mill. She said the mill has all the equipment to process spelt, another strain of wheat that has been used since ancient times.

Ancient grains fell out of favor over the centuries because they were lower-yielding varieties, Lambke said. Plant cross-breeding later created shorter plants, which used their energy to produce a bigger seed head for higher yield, she said.

“The science is still out on whether modern or old varieties are more nutritious or more easily digested,” Lambke said, “but I would say there’s a lot of popular interest right now in different and older varieties of wheat, because some people claim they are easier to digest and they certainly can be more flavorful and can add interest to meals, where modern flour is used as a medium for baking and is purchased less for its flavor.”

Speck’s cookbook, which includes 100 Mediterranean-inspired whole-grain recipes — from amaranth to wheat berries — has gained acclaim.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post selected “Ancient Grains” as one of the top cookbooks of 2011, and Cooking Light magazine named it one of 100 best cookbooks of the past 25 years.

Lambke, along with a small grass-roots group, formed the first Kneading Conference in 2007, attracting bakers and bread lovers from all over the country. Novice and professional bakers, farmers, millers, researchers and builders of wood-fired ovens gathered for the conference on the complementary trades of grain farming and consumption, she said.

Its goal is to revitalize the Maine grain economy and celebrate local and artisan grains in Somerset County, where wheat production fed more than 100,000 people annually until the mid-1800s. With the advent of transcontinental railroads and the appeal of the rich topsoil and longer growing season of the central plains, grain farming in Maine declined. Today less than 1 percent of the wheat that supplies Maine’s demand for it is actually grown in Maine, Lambke said.

The conference is sponsored by the Maine Grain Alliance, established in 2010, and will include workshops, guest speakers, baking demonstrations and panel discussions that focus on handcrafted bread, wood-fired oven cooking, types of flour and grains, and the role of grain in the Maine economy.

The Grain Alliance also resulted in creating local businesses inside the converted 1895 county jail in downtown Skowhegan, including the Somerset Grist Mill, which sold 10 tons of a heritage organic wheat flour to a Whole Foods production bakery in Boston this year and The Pickup Cafe, also in the old jail.

The conference continues Friday with a demonstration of wood-fired baking and making pizza with the heritage einkorn wheat.

Saturday is the day of the Artisan Bread Fair, which last year drew about 3,000 people to sample bread and pastries, as well as pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. Books and equipment for baking at home will be available, and professional bakers will be on hand to answer questions. The fair also will feature live music, exhibits of antique baking tools and kitchen linens, demonstrations and Maine-made food.

The registration fee for the Kneading Conference is $300 and includes all meals from Thursday breakfast through Friday lunch.

The popular Artisan Bread Fair is at the fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Parking costs $2 for the fair. Admission to the fair itself is free.

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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