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Extract from Part Two: Cereal
Kavılca Wheat - Büyük Çatma, Anatolia

Over thousands of years, various cultures and empires have claimed the soil of Büyük Çatma, on Turkey’s eastern border. But while different people came and went, a rare source of continuity has been a particular type of grain, Kavilca, an emmer wheat, one of the first plants domesticated by Neolithic farmers, which still grows in the fields around the village. Kavilca is now endangered, but it has been grown over centuries for good reason – it has qualities we can’t afford to lose.

It was harvest time, and the last uncut field of golden-yellow Kavilca formed an oasis against the backdrop of the grey-green mountains. The mature ears of wheat were now so heavy they bowed down, their long, protective bristles waving in the wind. Dasdemir walked among the chest-high stalks, picked off an ear and broke it apart. The grains were encased in a tight-fitting, protective shell, a glume. He rubbed it between his fingers. ‘Most wheat gives up its grains easily,’ he said. ‘Kavilca is stubborn.’ Kavilca also produces lower yields than modern varieties. I was starting to wonder why it hadn’t gone extinct long ago.

Resilience is part of the answer. The land around Büyük Çatma is high and harsh, a tough place to live, for people and plants. At an altitude of 1,500 metres, temperatures drop to below –30°C in the winter, and heavy snow can close the village off for weeks. During the spring it rains and the air is damp, an invitation for all kinds of diseases to attack crops. Few crops do well here. Kavilca is an exception; it evolved in this environment over thousands of years, adapted, survived and thrived. Dasdemir and the other farmers viewed Kavilca as an inheritance, handed down by their ancestors. ‘We have an emotional connection with this food,’ he said. ‘We love the way the wheat looks in our fields, and the smell and taste of the grain when it’s cooked.’

From the field, we went in search of the only local miller stubborn enough to still work with the stubborn wheat. Erdem Kaya looked tired when we arrived at his mill on the outskirts of the village. During harvest time, he finishes work at one o’clock in the morning and starts again at six. A beanpole of a man, dressed in a green overall, unshaven and melancholy-looking, he lives and works alone. His father had been a miller, he had been born in the mill and it was all he had ever known. The grey-stone mill stands beside the Kars Çayi River, the source of the power for the two large circular grinding stones inside. A sweet smell hung in the air like freshly baked cake. Kaya disappeared up a ladder and pulled a long wooden lever to start the flow of water. The whole room seemed to creak and then sigh as machinery juddered into life, a series of belts slapped into action and the giant stones began to turn.

Modern bread wheat is free-threshing which means its naked grains easily come loose from their ears, ready to be milled into flour. Because of their tough hulls, Kavilca grains have to be milled twice. The first step removes the husks. After these outer shells have been separated (winnowed away), a second round of grinding breaks the grains into tiny pieces, leaving it looking like fine shingle on a beach. It is the most difficult wheat Kaya works with, but also the most satisfying.

‘When they cook with it in the village, I can smell it from the mill,’ he said. ‘That’s not true with the other grains.’ He handed us a sack of Kavilca and we left him to his work.

The aroma Kaya described wafts from a variety of traditional Anatolian dishes that feature Kavilca, one of which was cooked with the grains we had collected from the mill. Back in the village Erdal Göksu and his wife Filiz, also farmers, roasted a goose on top of the cracked wheat so that its fat dripped down and cooked the grains. Filiz moved around the kitchen, a white, embroidered scarf covering her head, and added bowl after bowl to the table: cream and soft cheeses, pickled cabbage, peppers stuffed with spiced lamb and, at the centre of it all, a large dish piled with Kavilca shaped into a ring, its brown grains glistening with the fat and juices from the goose, with flakes of tender, buttery meat in the centre. The grains tasted rich, nutty and satisfying. ‘This is a taste we recognise deep within us,’ Filiz said, ‘we feel it in our bodies.’

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