Quinoa: A tale to unravel
Tag along my quest of what lies within the quinoa grains; small, multicoloured and wholesome a plenty. The journey will be ongoing, taking us to different places, for every grain caresses a story.
In a family owned field in the awe-inspiring highlands of my country I’ve experienced the sow, pick and harvest of avocados, lemons and tangerines, apples, peaches, red beans, pearl onions, alfalfa and zucchini, yet of quinoa… I know not.
A dear friend of mine with the name of a flower happens to grow white quinoa in her farm near the commune of Zuleta. Situated ninety kilometres northward from Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, Zuleta unfolds in a beautiful rural area with over a thousand residents. A place famous worldwide for its talented countryside women and men who manually embroider decorative mantel pieces, towels and napkins with different flowers of colourful threads. The theme of their craft captures what blogger Katherin Andrade described as the riches of a world looked upon with our eyes not only day to day but that embraces in an everlasting spiral-like motion the rural worldview of a reality that can only be understood with one’s soul.
In te beginning
The Caranqui were the first settlers of the area followed by the Incas and later the Spanish. In the beginning, offerings of grains and cereals the fertile soil provided were sacrificed at the foot of the mountains in praise of the magnificent volcanoes who guard and encompass the lands.
My friend Gabirú, an artsy designer often travels there to include the hand crafted magic in her designs. She says that the road that takes you there envelops you in picturesque sites, breathtaking mountains and hills patched with all the nuances of the color wheel with small houses of straw roofs sitting quietly on top.
On the road
When the weather is cloudless you are greeted by the imposing Cayambe: a 19,000 ft volcano who’s last eruption took place in the late 1700’s. Once you reach Zuleta, an essence of solitude and freedom takes over, you don’t see that many people in the vast lands that close around you. The presence of the community is evident: everything looks carefully organised. Urban art is also at hand, expressions of graffiti can be appreciated.
The families there are very numerous, the newborn is often taken care of by the eldest sibling that came before him or her. Children run around and play outdoors, liberty always by their side. People from Zuleta speak a mix of spanish and quechua; their native tongue. They work the giving land cultivating grains such as quinoa, amaranth, corn, wheat, barley, potatoes, beans, peas and oca. They produce milk, handle cattle, embroider and are potters as well. The oven were they cook the clay is built with circular stones and it reads ritual zone. In between the mountains you may find cascades of cold mountain water and it will be then when it dawns on you: the connection with the earth, you can feel it effortlessly sparkling inside you. A sight to see are the crops of purple cabbage which are but a purple ocean that collides with the bordering green fields that celebrate them. As a characteristic tundra, the cold may sneak in on you in the early morning and evening.
Now that we are acclimated with the area, we head back to my expedition of learning more about the quinoa; we return to my dear friend with the name of a flower who sows and harvests white quinoa. She has had a couple of experiences, she laughs as she tells me about the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of the good she believes she owes to beginners luck. She says that on that first time; the harvest was beautiful, the price was good and she had to vacate her country home so that she could store the Quinoa recollection of the six acres she planted: about 7,000 Kilo in her temporary would-be barn.
During the plow, unfortunately a lot of plastic from ten years back had resurfaced, having travelled through irrigation canals. She gathers with ten other people to clean it out.
The quinoa crop needs to be sowed evenly as a golden rule. The tractor will draw the furrows where the quinoa seed is to be placed.
The wooden stick with the pointy end is known as espeque in Spanish, with this part of the instrument you make holes in the soil were the quinoa is to be set. The tied, downward-facing plastic bottle is filled halfway with quinoa, its cap is put on and a small hole is made on top. And there you have it: a crafty artefact, a rural wit instrument serving as a uniform quinoa dispenser. Holding it with both hands; you will apply pressure on the espeque to make a hole in the soil, then you’ll shake the tool with a quick downward move that will automatically dispense the quinoa on the hole, planting it.
The harvest of quinoa
According to my friend, the quinoa harvest was rough. At first, it was done manually and it was very expensive. The cleaning of the crops is one tricky endeavour. Most fast and furious machines good for the cleaning of other crops are made for bigger grains and so their power is too strong for the tiny quinoa bits to stay put.
January is a good month to sow quinoa in Ecuador’s highlands. Tons of organic material were poured when prepping the soil: making sure the necessary vitamins and minerals would hearten the crops. The altitude of the designated area of sow was 2,950 MASL. High altitude is a must for this crop in the Andean Highlands. Rain is a menacing contender for it may take away the quinoa grains as it passes; water canals are built to relieve the crops. The sowing also needs to be cleared for business constantly: there are no weeds allowed. For this purpose, horses are led through the huachos (holes) to clean out weedy trespassers as they pass. If weeds prevail, the quinoa dies in a desperate struggle for water.
The surprise of frost in the darkest hour is also a peril, when a frost may crop up: bonfires are set near the quinoa sow where the smoke is protection. The harvest takes place in June or July were the sown field looks down on you as you stand next to it and admire grace of a golden dance conducted by the means of the wind.