Although commonly regarded as a cereal, buckwheat is in fact the fruit of a plant belonging to a different family altogether; this family includes sorrel and rhubarb. A native of northern Europe and Asia, buckwheat was widely cultivated in China from the 10th through the 13th century. It found its way into Europe via Turkey and Russia in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was introduced into Great Britain and the United States in the 17th century.
Today the largest producers of buckwheat are Russia and Poland, where it is a staple food, consumed mainly in soup and porridge. The Brittany region of France also produces a lot of buckwheat and is famous for its buckwheat crepes. In North America, buckwheat is mainly used to make pancakes.
This bushy annual plant can grow as high as 3 feet and produces clusters of highly fragrant white or pink flowers that bloom for over a month; bees are particularly fond of these flowers, from which they produce a strongly flavoured dark honey. The blackish seeds are triangular in shape and are about the size of a grain of wheat. Buckwheat can grow in poor soil and drought conditions, although the yield will be smaller; its short vegetative cycle makes it suitable for cultivation in temperate regions.
Buckwheat grains must be hulled in order to be edible; their triangular shape requires special hulling equipment, as the kernel is actually softer than most cereal grains. The grains are first washed and sorted according to size, after which they are crushed between two millstones to remove the hard outer shell without altering the grain. They are then sold, either roasted or plain, and graded according to size. Roasted cracked or whole buckwheat is called "kasha," used to make a dish that is popular in eastern Europe; kash has a distinctive flavour and colour. Flour is also made from buckwheat; the darker the flour, the higher its nutritional value.