Shall I Compare Thee to a Pan of Spelt?

This is a story of tri­umph against the odds; an account of a mod­est recipe and a tale of tower­ing tal­ent. Both the recipe and the per­son made infin­itely less fuss than most, and yet achieved so much more. The recipe is Pump­kin Spelt Risotto, the per­fect food for Autumn days. The per­son is Soph­ie Ger­main.

The math­em­at­ic­al quest to prove Fermat’s Last The­or­em defeated us for more than 350 years. To put it per­haps ludicrously simply, the the­or­em stated that while the equa­tion a² + b² = c² works just fine, the equa­tion a³ + b³ = c³ , or any power great­er, can­not be sat­is­fied. One of those whose work proved cru­cial in prov­ing Fer­mat right, was the French math­em­atician Soph­ie Ger­main, born in 1776. The fact that she learned Math­em­at­ics at all is a small mir­acle. As a child, she so craved to learn that she taught her­self Lat­in and Greek in order to be able to read the works of Sir Isaac New­ton and Leon­hard Euler in her father’s lib­rary. Her par­ents were appalled by her desire to learn. At night they banned her from hav­ing either warm clothes or a fire in her room, think­ing the cold and dark would stop any illi­cit study­ing. But, determ­ined to learn, she wrapped her­self in quilts and worked by the light of a candle.

It’s prob­ably no sur­prise to hear that Ger­main was banned from attend­ing uni­ver­sity too. Her solu­tion was to take a male pseud­onym and to send in writ­ten notes to one of the lec­tur­ers. Dur­ing her life­time, Soph­ie Ger­main received little recog­ni­tion for her work. The con­sensus was that she lacked the rigour needed to be truly bril­liant. The rigour would, of course, have come with form­al edu­ca­tion, an edu­ca­tion her crit­ics and detract­ors had denied her.

To come back to earth with not so much a bump as a deaf­en­ing crunch,  I was listen­ing to a radio pro­gramme about Fer­mat and Soph­ie Ger­main, while stir­ring a pan of spelt risotto. Soph­ie deserves bet­ter poetry than ‘shall I com­pare thee to a pan of spelt’, but I’m afraid the allu­sion has stuck in my mind. Spelt risotto needs none of the nur­tur­ing, cajol­ing and flat­ter­ing that its posh cous­in rice demands.  Just like Soph­ie Ger­main, spelt risotto sorts itself out, gets on with the job and in the end is both tri­umphant and massively under-rated. So at a time when edu­ca­tion for girls is still, tra­gic­ally, a polit­ic­al and ideo­lo­gic­al battle­ground, let’s pay trib­ute to Soph­ie Ger­main and all those women who came before and after.

Pump­kin and Spelt Risotto

Serves 4

  • I small sug­ar pump­kin (around 2kg in weight, uncut)
  • I car­rot
  • I stick cel­ery
  • I medi­um yel­low onion
  • 1 clove gar­lic
  • Hand­ful thyme leaves
  • 3 table­spoons extra vir­gin olive oil
  • season­ing
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 250g pearled spelt
  • 1.5 litres veget­able stock
  • Scat­ter­ing of freshly grated parmes­an
  • Large knob but­ter
  • Fresh tar­ragon

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Don’t both­er to peel the pump­kin. simply cut into smallish chunks, remove the seeds and place in a met­al bak­ing tray. I should say that I tried this recipe with both Crown Prince squash and with Har­le­quin squash. I advise you not to both­er. This recipe needs the melt­ing, vibrant, sweet tex­ture and taste of a stand­ard sug­ar pump­kin. Sea­son the cut pieces with salt and black pep­per and brush with olive oil over all the cut sur­faces. Bake for half an hour until soft and slightly car­a­mel­ised.

Chop the gar­lic, cel­ery, car­rot and onion as finely as you can man­age. The idea is to cook with a little olive oil and season­ing at a low to medi­um heat for half an hour, so that the veget­ables are soft, melt­ing and tend­ing towards the car­a­mel­ised. The pale, demure trans­lu­cency of onions deman­ded by a clas­sic risotto is not what you’re aim­ing for here. The clas­sic veget­able base of cel­ery, car­rot and onion is called sofritto — lit­er­ally, ‘under-fried’. But I don’t like either the word or the concept, so I’d rather call it a mélange or a muddle instead.  

When the pump­kin flesh is soft and sweet, remove the tray from the oven and put it on one side while the pump­kin cools.

Tip the spelt into the veget­able mélange. Stir it around so that the grains are coated and then add 500 mls of stock into the pan. Unlike a clas­sic risotto, you don’t need to add ladle­fuls of hot stock a little at a time. A full 500 mls of stock — hot or cold — is abso­lutely fine. Neither does spelt need the care­ful nurs­ing and nur­tur­ing of risotto, being far less tem­pera­ment­al and highly strung. Add the rest, as you need it.

The spelt takes around half an hour to cook. Ten minutes before it’s done, add the pump­kin flesh, using a spoon to scoop it out of the skin.

Just before serving, add a large knob of but­ter, some grated parmes­an and a scat­ter­ing of chopped tar­ragon. Any leftovers heat up very well the next day, with a little extra stock added if neces­sary.

Eat while study­ing Fermat’s Last The­or­em. If it makes sense, con­grat­u­late your­self. If it doesn’t, eat your spelt risotto while mar­vel­ling even more at Soph­ie Ger­main. Not only did she teach her­self Lat­in and Greek in order to then teach her­self Math­em­at­ics, she endured ridicule and mock­ery for her endeav­ours.


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