Archives for July 13, 2018

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Agricultural engineer Alicia Lucas collects quinoa seeds, professionally.  She has helped to cultivate and preserve hundreds of native varieties, developing seedbanks and working with her true passion, Bolivia’s royal quinoa.

After becoming used to the small grain quinoa that dots our supermarkets and co-ops across the US, I am amazed at the huge, robust size of the authentic, true “Royal Quinoa” of Bolivia.  This grain can only be grown from its birthplace alongside the shores of Bolivia’s highland salt flats.  The salty, volcanic soils, high radiation, dry cool air, organic llama fertilizer, and high altitude (13,000 feet) all work together to create an amazingly huge seed, about twice the size of those found in the US which mostly are from Peru with some Bolivian seed (the larger ones) mixed in.

Smaller seeds here are called “sweet quinoa” and are considered tough, hard, and mostly used as chicken feed when they do appear.  “Not fit for human consumption,” is what most farmers say about small seed quinoas.  Lucas explains it is called “chini” in her native Aymara language and is left as an offering for mice and rats.

Lucas calls the Royal Quinoa region, a small strip about 50 miles wide surrounding the Uyuni salt flats, the “heart of the quinoa.”  She grew up in the small mountain community of Unicay in the Department of Potosi with the mountain quinoa – the most authentic, and culturally steeped quinoa still planted and harvest by hand, even today.

Currently the Unicay quinoa, like all hand grown mountain quinoa, is mixed with all others and sold as “Royal Bolivia Quinoa.”  I hope in time we can start valuing the differences between the different quinoa properties, cultivations, and varieties.  Much as Thailand has different ways of selling its nine main varieties of export rice from a cheap “white rice 25%” at $364 FOB as of July 11, 2018 to the premium Thai Hom Mali rice selling at more than three times the price, for $1,197 FOB the same date ( .  Lucas’ hand grown, organic,  mountain quinoa would be the Bolivian quinoa equivalent of the Thai Hom Mali rice.

Mountain quinoa is a labor of love, explains Lucas.  Famers work from 5am to 6pm.  Planting and weeding the tiny quinoa seedlings “al pulso” – by hand.  Planting means digging a large round hole about 2 feet wide and 8” deep in which to plant a single tiny seed.  The depression protects the seeds from frost and helps to funnel scarce water to seed as well.  It takes a week to hand plant a hectare of mountainside land like this.  Meanwhile, down below in the flat plains that extend out from the skirts of the mountains, tractors can be seen quickly plowing and planting their quinoa – managing an average of 10 – 15 hectare lots (about 40 acres) and planting the quinoa in long, deep furrows.  In a day their multiple acreage of flatland quinoa is planted.  A single hectare of hand planted mountain grown quinoa takes a week and a half to plant.

“We take care of them like babies, like our own children,” explained Lucas describing how the families cultivate small, one-hectare plots (about 2.5 acres) personally getting to know each plant.  Farmers painstakingly gather thorny branches from Leguminosae, a native plant in the Cassia family.  They carefully place a small amount of thorns each around each tiny, emerging seedling to protect it from birds and rabbits who can nibble on the tender green shoots, being careful to still give the seedlings room to grow.

Planting is not the only act of love when it comes to quinoa, explains Lucas.  There is also the constant weeding.  With water scarce, weeds can quickly drink up the water the quinoa needs to grow.  There is no irrigation here, so getting rid of weeds is essential for the plants to have enough to drink.

Then comes the harvest and cleaning.  Quinoa ripens at different rates over a two month period of time with different varieties and sectors of the quinoa ripening at different times.  So the harvest extends over a good two-month period of time, explained Lucas.  During this time, people hand cut the huge sheaves of quinoa – with each weighing many pounds and often being more than 6 feet tall.  The sheaves are laid on tarps and hit with heavy clubs to release the seeds from the seed head.  Some farmers run them over with trucks or tractors too.  These sturdy seeds are winnowed, sifter and sorted several times using different grades of sifters, to remove the chaff and stems.  The people harvesting the larger quantities of plains quinoa down below do not have time for such labor-heavy work and have more earnings too.  They often have small machines that help with the thrashing and sorting of their quinoa.

Once the mountain quinoa is cleaned to a certain degree, the hard saponin coating needs to be removed.  This coating, explained Lucas, is what protects the seed from birds and insects – its bitter flavor is unpleasant to most animals.  It is unpleasant to humans too and must be completely removed in order for the quinoa to have its light delicate creamy flavor which is lo loved by all.

Here is where mountain grown quinoa really begins to be different.  In order to sperate the saponin coating, the people use “poquera” a very special type of hard, powdered earth (like “white flour” described Lucas) that is only found in certain mountain areas.  They lightly wet the poquera and mix the quinoa with this and then grind it with their bare feet in ancient “taquiranas” or hollowed out stones that they inherited from their ancestors and which have been dated back to 5,000 years.  “They last forever,” explained Lucas.

Lucas loves her varieties.  She starts naming the most well known: pandela; chana moq’o – a white quinoa used to make pito, an edible quinoa powder;  and the toledos: rojo, Amarillo and naranja (red, yellow and orange) – all white quinoas which are great for soup, mo’kuna (a dry steamed quinoa dumpling with llama meat in the center), and graneada de quinoa or qu’ispa (granulated quinoa – toasted and prepared similar to rice). Then comes the quinoa roja (red quinoa) whose red sees is delicious when toasted and the quinoa negra (black quinoa) whose sweet, black seeds are also great for pito and mo’kuna –with a bit of sweetness.  Finally she speaks of my favorite, the quispina or ch’ilpi, the crystalline mountain grown quinoa seed that when cooked down becomes gummy and chewy.  It makes great quinoa gelatin and is a favorite for grinding into flour for quinoa breads, cookies and cakes.  I imagine it being used to make “quinoa sushi” rolled in seaweed leaves and stuffed with fresh bits of carrot, cucumber, picked beats, chives, and salmon – yum!  In the next post, Lucas will share some of her favorite quinoa recipes with us.

So I ask Lucas, the question I have been asking everyone in the quinoa fields.  “Why are you still here?”  There are so many opportunities in other places, jobs in the cities, easier lives elsewhere.  Why stay in this hard, cold, isolated, rustic environment?  With global quinoa market prices still low, no one in Bolivia is making enough with their quinoa to cover their production costs, little let alone cover their own living costs and save for their children’s future.  Why not just leave?  Lucas answers as many have since I started asking the question, she is accustomed to this lifestyle.  She knows how to do it. She is secure in her skills and abilities and is very good at it.  She has good yields, cares for the seeds and protects and nurtures the plants.  For seven years she was president of FAUTAPO, a large national agricultural development organization.  She was also the elected leader of her community, the Authoridad.  This is where her home and heart is.  She believes in “living well” the Andean ways of sustainability.