Saturday, 27 February 2016

On growing quinoa, and the long road to actually eating it

I think somebody should do a study on the political ecology of quinoa production. About a year ago, prices for (organic) quinoa in supermarkets here suddenly doubled, from about SEK 80 to an exorbitant SEK 150 (about EUR 17) per kg, and they haven't really come down since. Undoubtedly this is partly a reflection of the tiny grain's transition from obscure superfood to mainstream hipsterdom. I could imagine that farmers in Peru and Bolivia, where 95% of quinoa is grown, are struggling to keep up with the soaring demand created by the quinoa-devouring populations of Berlin, Stockholm and New York. Undoubtedly also, this has set in motion a host of transformations for traditional quinoa growers that have left them more exposed to the wits of global commodity markets and the health-food fads of prosperous Westerners (yes, I am including myself here). Certainly, there's boundless other factors waiting to be explored as well. A timely and interesting subject, if I say so myself. Any takers? I'll throw out a potential research question: How will Andean producers be affected once global quinoa prices drop, as they are likely to do when production in the US, Europe and elsewhere picks up?

I wished that my motivation for growing quinoa during the past year was entirely given in by lofty moral considerations such as these, some kind of Marcusian Great Refusal on my side, an attempt to one-up the global quinoa market by actively disengaging from it. More mundanely though, I just kind of liked the idea of trying to grow my own quinoa. Surely nothing that I could buy in the supermarket could taste as great as what I had grown with my own hands? I had read somewhere that apart from maize, quinoa is probably the only grain worth growing on a backyard scale, since per-plant yields can be quite respectable. As I'm not the greatest quinoa consumer (I confess to a weakness for Fagopyrum esculentum [buckwheat] instead), I figured a few plants would go a long way and decided to give it a go. So on the 10th of May last year, I filled three rows with the tiny seed, perhaps 15m in total, and waited for them to come up. I now think I could probably have sowed quite a bit earlier as well, quinoa seems to germinate at fairly low temperatures. I sowed three out of the four different varieties that I had acquired from Real Seeds in the UK, and Nichols Garden Nursery in the US, and one of them ('temuco') didn't come up at all.

The fun thing about growing quinoa is that, as the plants emerge, you will have no idea if you're actually growing quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) or just lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), the common garden weed that is a close relative and that looks identical in the early stages of growth. In my case, a lot of the quinoa didn't come up, but quite a bit of quinoa look-a-likes sprouted in between the rows. I don't have that much weeds in this part of my allotment, but I imagine things could become quite messy in places where there's a lot of lambsquarter seeds in the soil. Bemused, I just let all of it grow for a few months. Quinoa gets quite a bit taller than lambsquarters and is less bushy in its growth habit, so after a while it becomes easier to distinguish the two. Apart from that, this is a crop that really grows as easily as its weedy relative. I gave it a bit of compost and seaweed extract and then basically ignored it until autumn. There weren't really any real pest or disease problems to speak of, and I didn't have to water the plants at all (though we did have an unusually wet summer).

One of the Real Seeds varieties is called 'Rainbow' and gives you a spectular display of colours in autumn as the plants and the seed heads start drying. They're highly ornamental, ranging from green over brown and yellow to different shades of red, orange and pink. I finally cut off all the seedheads - perhaps 20-30 in total - during a dry spell in the beginning of October and hung them indoors to dry down further. This is basically where things become a little bit complicated. In order to get from a bushel of dried quinoa seed stalks to a neat pile of edible quinoa seed, you will need to thresh, sift, and clean the seed. This is not necessarily difficult but without the advantages of appropriate equipment or previous quinoa-threshing experience, it's a very time-consuming process. Together with a friend I ended up threshing each seed head by hand, then sifting the debris through canvases of different mesh sizes, and then winnowing what was left in small batches to get rid of dust and the smallest debris. Without wanting to claim that the results yielded by my primitive methods are generalizable in any way, it took several evenings to get a grand total of 1200g of quinoa. Let's just say I gained a lot of respect for the machineless quinoa-, sorghum-, amaranth-, millet-, etc- producers of the world. 

My authentic African winnow, finished with cow dung!
Swedish quinoa
Next, you need to carefully wash the quinoa in order to get rid of the bitter-tasting saponins that coat the seeds. Again, there's probably more sophisticated, energy-efficient and altogether smarter ways of going about this, but I just washed the seed a few times and then boiled it in plenty of water. It was still quite bitter at this point so I had to change the cooking water four or five times before the bitterness had more or less disappeared. Apparently there's some saponin-free varieties out there, so anyone seriously thinking about taking up quinoa-growing could probably save herself quite a bit of effort by tracking down these varieties.

Now to get my head around the apparent resurgent interest for sorghum and teff. Actually, for anyone falling in love with sorghum, I understand it should be quite possible to grow in more northern climates...  I myself, though, have decided to abandon my (pseudo)grain-growing ambitions for the time being. While the result, in the end, was a quite delicious and very satisfying quinoa, I'm not convinced it's really worth all the effort. If I could grow quinoa on a slightly larger scale, I could probably be persuaded to invent/invest in some proper quinoa-adapted treshing equipment. Within the limits of my dangerously overcrowded suburban allotment however, it feels slightly more sensible to focus my botanical pursuits on less labour-intensive crops. More skirret, anyone?