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.



  1. Very interesting to use spelt grains instead of arborio rice for risotto and it sounds much easier too. Must try it. Your photos are wonderfully composed and beautifully composed. I particularly loved the alphabetical pumpkins – brilliant.

    1. Thanks Jakey – I recommend spelt risotto. It has a much nuttier flavour than a rice version. I’m particularly glad you like the alphabet shot. I took it before I started thinking about Maths, but it fits the story rather well.

    1. I love the thought that it’s lyrical, Sally – thanks. Sophie Germain’s grave has apparently seen better days, but at least since her death she’s received some recognition for her work.

  2. That is the most inspiring and beautiful piece of food writing I have ever read. Truly awe inspiring. So thoughtful. That I want to make the risotto is great, but that I am thinking all about Sophie Germain, a trailblazer, intellectual and hero is fantastic. Right now, in a hospital in Birmingham (UK), little Malala Yousufzai is recovering from being shot in the head for nothing more than being a girl who wants an education. As you say, this issue is still a battleground.

    1. I’m touched by your comment, Snigdha – thank you so much. I’m very glad this piece resonated with you.

  3. Your prowess at connecting seemingly unrelated stories leaves me in awe, as ever. Spelt’s cousin farro is one of my all-time favourite grains – have not yet tried a risotto with it but now I feel I must! Love the plates/bowls BTW. major prop envy.

    1. My daughter said that combining spelt, Maths and education for women couldn’t be done – but with a little shuffling about, anything’s possible.
      I’ve never tried farro – but I will now. And thank you, as ever, for your comment, Jeanne.

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