I read the email this morning. Fernanda said they had harvested quinoa and would start threshing it today. An intern from Ecuador, Fernanda had told me about growing up in Riobamba, in the Andes, where her mother has a restaurant that serves traditional food, including quinoa. Last week I took a picture of her standing beside the quinoa, a variety from the USDA seed bank, a multi-hued one. Fernanda led me to the drying loft of the barn, where bundles of rye, teff, and garlic were hung to dry. I arrived at the garden at lunchtime so, she got me started and went to take a break. I was excited to get started. The last time I cleaned quinoa was when I worked at the Abundant Life Seed Foundation fifteen years ago.
Another Ecology Action intern, Luke, showed me how they first weigh the whole plant to calculate the dry biomass, an important step in collecting data for their research in determining yields. Then the seeds are gently stripped off the stem to avoid gathering unnecessary bits of stem and debris. One batch I worked on was not completely dry. The colored stems were so heavily ribbed that they reminded me of rainbow chard when it has bolted. Much of the seed stayed wrapped in the dried chaff, yet the grain (pseudograin see archives) looked completely mature. The other batch was much faster to process because the stems were brittle. I rubbed the dried flower heads between my hands and let the seed fall into a bowl. I worked alone for a few minutes and then two volunteers returned to work on amaranth.
Later, Ellen Bartholomew, the garden manager at this site, one of Ecology Action’s research gardens, joined me. She showed me a faster way to process grains. After stripping the dried seed heads, we pushed the quinoa through seed screens. The best arrangement was #5 on top and the fine mesh on bottom. The most mature quinoa fell through by shaking the screen, whereas we needed to rub the remainder through the screen. The stems and coarse material remained on top. The finest chaff sifted through the fine mesh screen, leaving very little debris to remove in the last step.
Winnowing is a skill that reminds me of a chef tossing an omelet. I remember working as a cook in an Italian restaurant and told to practice with a skillet of dry beans. By flipping the wrist I learned how to turn a pan of sautèd veggies without a spatula. Holding a bowl lightly with two hands and standing in front of an electric fan on low, I tossed the quinoa; the chaff sailed through the air, onto the floor. Quinoa is a good one for beginners to learn with because the chaff is so much lighter than the seed, thus it separates easily. To make sure the seed is evenly dry, the quinoa will be kept at the temperature it will later be stored at before being placed in a sealed container. If they are not damp, and don’t stick to each other, unlikely in this dry air, then they will be ready to go into storage containers. Ecology Action does lots of quinoa trials; this mountain valley provides the ideal growing conditions, hot days and cool nights.