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Achojcha: An Inca vegetable June 21st, 2020 by

Ver la versión en español a continuación

The achojcha is a member of the squash family, green and crunchy and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. It grows vigorously as a vine and will smother a tree, if you let it.

The achojcha has an edible skin and is hollow inside, like a balloon, with striking black seeds. It needs little care. It can grow back every year from seeds that were accidently dropped the year before, sprouting with the summer rains, and bearing fruit in the autumn. With irrigation it will grow pretty much year-round.

The book Lost Crops of the Incas estimates that the achojcha was domesticated 9000 years ago. Ancient peoples loved it enough that the pre-Colombian Chimú people of Peru made effigy pots in honor of the little fruit.

We have grown achojcha in our garden in Cochabamba, Bolivia for years, and it’s a popular vegetable with smallholders. The achojcha is high-yielding and sometimes we have a basketful of fruit left on the vine which we can pick during the Andean winter. Even when we abandon the fruit until the end of the season, it simply wilts, and we have yet to see any diseases or insect pests on it. There is only passing reference to a virus in achojcha. I have seen mites on achojcha in the valley of Comarapa, further down the Andes, where pesticide abuse is common.

The achojcha is still a poor person’s food in Bolivia. It is not sold by that bedrock of middle-class cuisine, the supermarket, but you can buy achojcha from street venders. The achojcha does enjoy a certain following. If you search for it on the Internet you will find several recipes. Home cooks in South America sometimes stuff the achojcha with cheese, or with rice and meat, before battering it with egg and frying it. The versatile fruit can be stewed or eaten raw in salads. 

As Paul argued in last week’s blog, farmers should be encouraged to produce for the local market. While governments and donors have a responsibility to invest in generating new knowledge in support of agroecology, a transition towards more sustainable food systems will also require re-educating consumers on the importance of preparing the fruits and vegetables that fit best into the local agroecology.

Further reading

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

.Related blog stories

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Scientific and other names

The achojcha is called caigua in the northern Andes. Its scientific name is Cyclanthera pedata.

A couple of unconvincing English names are “stuffing cucumber” and “slipper gourd.”

Acknowledgement

As always, thanks to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for excellent comments on a previous draft. Thanks also to Eric for his stunning picture of the achojcha seeds.

LA ACHOJCHA: HORTALIZA INCA

Por Jeff Bentley, 21 de junio del 2020

La achojcha es un miembro de la familia de las calabazas, verde y crujiente y del tamaño justo para caber en la palma de tu mano. Crece vigorosamente como una parra y ahoga a un árbol, si se lo permites.

La achojcha tiene una cáscara comestible y es hueca por dentro, como un globo, con llamativas semillas negras. Necesita poco cuidado. Puede volver a nacer todos los años a partir de semillas que se cayeron accidentalmente el año anterior, brotando con las lluvias de verano, y dando frutos en el otoño. Con la irrigación crecerá año redondo.

El libro Lost Crops of the Incas estima que la achojcha fue domesticada hace 9000 años. A los antiguos les gustaba tanto que el pueblo chimú precolombino de Perú hizo ollas efigies en honor a la pequeña fruta.

Hemos cultivado achojcha en nuestro huerto en Cochabamba, Bolivia, durante años, y es una hortaliza cotizada entre los campesinos. La achojcha es rendidora y a veces nos queda una canasta llena de fruta en la parra hasta después de cosecharla por meses. Incluso cuando abandonamos la fruta hasta el final de la temporada, simplemente se marchita, y todavía no hemos visto ninguna enfermedad o plaga insectil en ella. Sólo hay una referencia pasajera a un virus en la achojcha. He visto ácaros en la achojcha en el valle de Comarapa, más abajo en los Andes, donde el abuso de pesticidas es común.

La achojcha sigue siendo el alimento de los pobres en Bolivia. No es vendido por ese cimiento de la cocina burguesa, el supermercado, pero puedes comprar achojcha de los puestos en la calle. La achojcha tiene su público. Si lo buscas en Internet encontrarás varias recetas. Los cocineros caseros de Sudamérica a veces rellenan la achojcha con queso, o con arroz y carne, antes de rebozarlo con huevo y freírlo. Esta fruta tan versátil puede entrar a la sopa, o cruda en ensaladas. 

Como Paul argumentó en el blog de la semana pasada, se debe alentar a los agricultores a producir para el mercado local. Si bien los gobiernos y los donantes tienen la responsabilidad de invertir en generar nuevos conocimientos en apoyo de la agroecología, la transición hacia un agro más sostenible también requiere reeducar a los consumidores sobre la importancia de preparar las frutas y verduras que se adapten a la agroecología local.

Para leer más

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

Otros relatos de este blog

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Agradecimiento

Sinónimo y nombres científicos

La achojcha se llama caigua en el norte de los Andes. Su nombre científico es Cyclanthera pedata.

Como siempre, gracias a Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por sus excelentes comentarios sobre un borrador anterior. Gracias también a Eric por su impresionante imagen de las semillas de achojcha.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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Stuck in the middle

Keep your cows in the family

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Pure milk is good milk

Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

Helping to write a script for a farmer training video on vermiwash triggered my interest in trying it out myself, as I began to wonder if ideas from tropical India could work in temperate Belgium.

As the video explains, vermiwash is the liquid that is collected after water passes through compost made by earthworms. It is rich in plant growth hormones, micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, and major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vermiwash increases the number of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and helps plants to grow healthy.

After showing the problem of declining soil health due to the overuse of agrochemicals, the video quickly moves on to some powerful, motivational interviews by some local farmers in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

“When you want to mix vermicompost with the soil, you need large quantities. But vermiwash can be applied directly to plant leaves, so you need less and you can see the effect on plant growth faster. It is also cheaper than compost,” says farmer Sivamoorthi.

Besides the liquid vermiwash, I had also helped another of our Indian partners, WOTR, develop a video on vermicompost, which is solid, and stronger than normal compost . But, I was more attracted to the idea of making vermiwash, as it requires little space and I could easily use it as a foliar spray on my vegetables, berry shrubs and fruit trees.

At the local hardware store, I bought a barrel with a tap at the bottom. The first drafts of the script mentioned that it is best to fill the bottom of the barrel with small stones, so the tap doesn’t get blocked. I did exactly that. In the final version of the video, this part was removed. When I asked Shanmuga Priya, who made this video, she said: “After I talked to farmers it seems no one is doing this, because after three months they empty the barrel, remove the earthworms and then put the compost on their field. Of course, they don’t want stones to be mixed with the compost.”

Indian farmers just use a small piece of mosquito netting or cotton cloth as a filter. Right, that was a good lesson; farmers always find a way to improve any technique they learn from extension staff. I still have the bottom of my barrel filled with pebbles, and so far so good. I will have to make the extra effort of sorting out the stones when setting up a new batch of vermiwash.

The video says to fill the bottom with some 10-15 centimetres of dried leaves, not green ones, which would slow down decomposition. As I had plenty of dried oak leaves, and even though they decompose slowly, I wondered if they would work, but hey, that’s what I have, so that’s what I will try.

Then the video shows how an equal amount of rice straw is added. Instead, I used wheat straw, as I still have plenty of bundles in the attic of our shed.

The next part was also a little tricky. While the video suggested using 5 to 10 kg of decomposed cow dung, I wondered if the dung of my sheep would work just as well. It was a discussion I had had several times with Indian partners, who always say that only cow dung is a useful source of beneficial microorganisms. I asked a friend of mine, who is soil scientist, and still did not get a clear answer to this. Soil scientists are trained more in the physical and chemical properties of soil and are less familiar with its complex biology. But that is food for another blog story.

After adding some water to the barrel, I collected a few handfuls of earthworms from my compost and put them into the barrel. I would soon see if my set up would work or not. While farmers in India can collect vermiwash after just 10 days, I realised that the early days of spring in Belgium are still too cold, so the worms are not that active yet. Six weeks later, though, we happily collected our first litre of brown vermiwash.

After diluting it with ten litres of water, I sprayed the vermiwash on the leaves of my rhubarb as an experiment, before putting it on any other plants. In just a few days the leaves turned a shiny, dark green. The plants looked so healthy, that neighbours even remarked on it and asked what I had given them.

My wife, Marcella, had been rearing vegetable seedlings in a small glass house, and when the time came to transplant them to the garden, she decided to set up a small experiment. One batch of mustard leaf seedlings would be planted straight in the soil, the other batch she would soak the roots of the seedlings for 15 minutes in pure vermiwash. After all, the video shows that this works with rice seedlings, so why not with vegetable seedlings?

And again, the effect was striking: all of the seedlings dipped in the vermiwash took root quickly, while in the other batch only a fraction did.

As Jeff has written in some earlier blogs, the Covid-19 crisis has stopped people from travelling, affecting many farmers (see: Travelling farmers), students (see: A long walk home) and society at large. It has also forced people to creatively use their time. Like many other people, we have been able to spend more time in the garden, and in our case, we were able try out some of the things we learned from farmers in the global South.

As we tried oak leaves, wheat straw and sheep dung instead of the ingredients used by Indian farmers, we found that vermiwash works as well in Flanders as it does in Tamil Nadu. Good training videos inspire people to experiment with new ideas and adapt these to their own conditions. That is the philosophy and approach of Access Agriculture: using video as a global source of inspiration.

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Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Related blog stories

A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artículo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vínculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producción agrícola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, según los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artículo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. Sólo el 8% de la producción agrícola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producción cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras así no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azúcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camión, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehículos circulan con permisos falsificados, sólo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como Martín Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicó que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sólo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicó otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendré mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Historias relacionadas de este blog

A long walk home

En el frutillar de nuevo

The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every “system” (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

“It’s not profitable,” the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

“But the farmers do grow it,” I said.

“Well, they won’t for long,” the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had “bread up its ass and shit in its mouth” (pão no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: “Cereal – Renaissance in the field” (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

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