Barbela is a nutritious wheat that, until the 1930s, accounted for the bulk of Portuguese wheat consumption. It came from the fertile crescent and thrived in Portugal because it is hardy and can grow anywhere. Its long roots allow it to survive droughts and flourish in poor soils.
Hybrid wheats arrived in Portugal in the 1930s. They are low in nutrition but have high production yields boosted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gradually, barbela lost ground to these flashy newcomers until only one barbela field remained. It is located on the foot of the Montejunto mountain and belongs to João Vieira. We drove to this place, far from the commotion of urban life, to meet with him.
At 83 years of age, João speaks with the passion of youth and the wisdom earned over the course of a life well lived. Everything he says comes from a well of deep reflection.
João worked in France during his youth, but when manufacturing jobs started to disappear, he returned to the land of his ancestors. He realized that barbela, once ubiquitous on the sandy soils of Montejunto, was vanishing. The seed stock was dwindling, and so was the cultivation knowledge. João started planting barbela seeds that came from his father and grandfather. He loved seeing this tall wheat sway again with the wind, making waves like the sea.
What started as a one-person campaign against oblivion mobilizes today a small army. João calls it the barbela tribe. It is a loose network of farmers who plant barbela and share their experiences. João inducts new members by giving them seeds on the condition that they later provide other people with seeds and bring them into the tribe.
Barbela is a soft wheat that produces flour suitable for breads, tarts, and cakes. Every day, João makes bread with his barbela flour. After harvesting, threshing, and milling, the sieve has the last word, choosing what makes it into the flour. João likes his bread with a coarse texture, so he occasionally overrules the sieve and lets a few larger grains into the mix.
He went into the kitchen and returned with a basket of bread to share with us. We sat with him for quite a while, trying this exquisite bread and listening to his precious words. It was a very fine use of time.