Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Big Sweep

Two dozen arms sweep and push and pull. Backs bend and straighten, turn and twist and bend again. The breeze carries chaff and sneezes over the threshing floor. The tractor roars and turns in circles, over and over, crushing the crop beneath two stone-studded sledges a half-century old.

Nobody´s threshed garbanzo beans here for at least two decades, I am told, and never such a grand quantity. The work´s only meant for the nine or ten members of the clan who raised the plants: Angelín and Angelón, Segundino and Toñi, Floren, Feliciano, Mari Angeles, Hilario and Isabel, a little black dog called Amora, and their brother/uncle/in-law Manolo up there in the John Deere.

The novelty, and the need, drew more of Moratinos out to the era, the threshing floor to lend a hand. We were: Paddy and me, Modesto, Leandra, Milagros, Esteban´s sister Paula, and a couple more summer people I don´t know. Pilgrims stopped to snap photos.

Some of the older people did this work before, back when they were young: Garbanzos and lentils and grain, all had to be beaten into the ground this way to break the fruit free of the pods and leaves and twigs that surround them. The heavy sledges, called "trillos," were pulled by steers or mules. (And when the animals made manure, Modesto pointed out, the driver had to run up and catch it in his hands, so as not to soil the beans! Not so bad with a mule, but cows? Wheew! You kept a bucket on the sledge.)

As the fluffy plants are crushed flat beneath the trillo, the helpers use rastros and escobas and orcas (handmade wooden rakes, straw brooms, and hayforks) to turn it over and shove and sweep the plant matter farther into the circle´s center, to be run-over again.

Trillos are almost never used any more, and then only by small-scale farmers like Manolo. He chains two of them side-by-side behind his tractor, and the work is done in less than half the time an animal might take, with a lot less worry about poo.

The greater concern is silliness. It´s helpful to have some weight on top the sledges, so the siblings, none of them spring chickens, jump on and frolic while Manolo makes the trillos swing and buck, just a bit. It´s a low-tech thrill ride, a chance to let the breeze blow back your hair.

Time passes. The sun pounds down, and even the breeze is hot. We bend and sweep every tiny bean inward. Beginners are given a quick tutorial, and told to feel the wind, to keep out of the shifting cloud of broken chaff, to give each stroke a lift at the end, to send a little more of the dust into the breeze.

In bigger, more developed places this work is now completely mechanized. Manolo´s family hasn´t grown its own garbanzos for a good 25 years, he said -- it´s not a good investment, not with Argentinian beans selling at 40 cents a kilo. Spanish farmers cannot make a profit when the price falls below a Euro, so the locals only grow small crops of these kinds of legumes, for their own consumption.

The final outcome, these little swept-up brown beans, are "rico, rico, rico, lo mejor," I am told, over and over: delicious, the very best. They are small and hard, but they have a nutty, dense flavor that stews beautifully with swiss chard or spinach or cabbage.

These beans will feed their big family for the next year, Hilario said. They will eat them themselves, or sell them to the neighbors, maybe use some for seed for next year. The leftover sticks and leafy bits will feed the pigs and chickens.

This family has an ancient sarcophagus in their yard, used to store construction junk. They are re-doing a house on the plaza with their own hands, a place with a Romanesque doorway where their mother was born. It is slowly becoming a showplace. In their higgledy-piggeldy complex they produce hams and sausages, tools, fruit and vegetables, wine, moonshine, poultry, rabbits, and hunting dogs.

And garbanzos, this year.

They think it´s kind of cute, how interested I am in outmoded, sweaty work. They laugh out loud at the end of the afternoon, after the cider is drunk and the beans are reduced to a small mound on the era, when I thank them for asking me over, for giving me an opportunity to rastrar and orcar alongside them.

I wish I could ask them: How often can I do with my hands the sweep of history that´s scratched the ground of that era for a thousand years?

But I am a stranger enough the way I am. And my Castellano just isn´t up to that yet.


Libby said...

I had chickpeas in curry sauce for lunch today. They were pretty good, but I bet the ones you got were better. I'm jealous. You'll have to make some hummus with them to expose the locals to something new. Love you.

Rebrites@yahoo.com said...

I´ve tried introducing new things. And I learned the locals ain´t interested in that foreign muck.

Ryan said...

I just had curry and chickpeas for lunch too! Libby I love you :-)

Reb - this is an amazing post. Thank you. This makes me yearn to be there. What a fantastic day that must have been.

Great photos - I'm going to share this.


claire bangasser said...

Your castellano may not be 'up to that yet,' but your presence has to be a gift to everyone else there.