VI. CROP HARVESTING AND PRESERVATION
Harvesting crops for human consumption
Cereals have been a fundamental part of the diet. Given that an extensive area of the territory studied is on the Mediterranean side of the watershed, where large areas were given over to that crop, it is not strange that a great deal of information could be gathered on harvesting cereals, as well as on their processing to obtain grain. The first part contains general data on the different types of cereals, even though the main focus is on wheat. Another section is on corn, whose better adaptation to the wet climate was a great relief on the Atlantic side, where there were problems with the wheat planted precisely due to the excess humidity.
Reaping and threshing was carried out in the sun and required a great deal of labour at that time prior to the introduction of modern machinery. Everyone who took part in that work recalls how hard it was. Machines gradually took over the hard tasks involved in harvesting cereals until the modern combine-harvesters replaced them all.
Evolution of reaping and threshing cereals
In general, the traditional way was by hand with the help of a sickle and the scythe was subsequently replaced by machines that were initially drawn by animals. The first mowers formed sheaves but did not bind them, then machines appeared that did bind them, and finally the fully mechanised combine-harvesters came into use. They initially used sacks, followed by hoppers, which sent the train to the trailers of the tractors that took them to the store.
The use of modern combine-harvesters has completely changed the reaping work and there is no longer any need for threshing. The grain is taken directly from the field to the store, with no other stage at the farmstead.
The machinery was introduced much earlier on the Mediterranean side, as is logical, as that is where most of the cereal is grown, and evolved as described to the modern combine-harvesters. Only machines for threshing, such as the threshers or threshing units, were used on the Atlantic side. Farmers turned their backs on this crop as the production was poor in this area and therefore no further machines were brought in.
An essential aspect to being able to use vegetable and produce in general was how to keep them. In this regard, there were significant technological advances in recent decades, particularly with the widespread use of freezers at home.
The different traditional techniques that are still used today are summarised below.
- 1. Storing as they are. This is the method used for apples and potatoes, for example. Care needs to be taken when selecting the produced, so that items that are damaged or bruised (in the case of applies) or nicked or cut (potatoes) are not stored in order to minimise the damage caused by rot.
- 2. Drying. This involves reducing the degree of humidity of the products, thus lowering the risk of fungus developing that would ruin the produce. Drying has been traditionally carried out on the balconies of the houses or in open spaces using the autumn sun.
- 3. Bottling. Pasteurisation using heat plus anoxia (sealing wax was previously used). It was a common practices in the homes once the appropriate containers were available. This method was used to preserve much of the produce from the vegetable gardens. On the Mediterranean side, particularly in towns and villages near to canning factories, this procedure was industrial rather than carried out at the farmstead.
- 4. Pickling. This process involves reducing the pH of the preserved product, which makes it harder for microorganisms to grow and that guarantees it will last longer. It was traditionally used to store chilli peppers and more recently gherkins.
- 5. Vacuum packing. The aim in this case is to achieve the maximum degree of anoxia. This system has been more commonly used for meat, charcuterie and cheese than for vegetables and fruit, even though that is also the case, and sometimes combined with the subsequent freezing.
- 6. High sugar concentration. This is the method used to preserve part of the fruit, by making sweets and jams.
- 7. Fermentation. This method has allowed fruit such as grapes or apples to be transformed by means of fermentation into wine or txakoli, or cider, respectively.
- 8. Cold. Cold has always been used as many houses had a pantry in the past. Yet the greatest advance in this regard was cold storage, dry chambers or refrigerators, as a much lower temperature could be thus achieved.
Until the 1950s, flour mills were an essential aspect of the livestock-farming economy of our villages. This explains the large number of mills that were to be found throughout the Basque Country.
Types of mills
The mill was called errota, igara, eihera, bolu in Basque. In Spanish, there were different words to describe the mills such as aceña, tahona (driven by mules).
The importance of these industries overtime is reflected in the many places names to be found here and which refer to the mills that stood there. This phenomena is to be found throughout the Basque Country, both in Basque (Bolueta, Bolibar, Bolunburu, Igarabidea, Igarabide, Errotaldea, etc.) and in Spanish (Molinar, Molinedo, Las Aceñas, Molinejo, etc.).
Apart from the watermills located next to fast flowing rivers, there were wind mills, haize-errotak, located in windy areas.
Tidal mills were also used, and some as recently as a few years ago, in coastal towns. Their structure was similar to the river mills and the tanks were filled with the flow at high tide and their turbines or bearings were driven by the difference in level as the tide flowed out at low tide.
Decline of the mills
These small hydraulic industries underwent adaptations overtime. Some of them had previously been forges, burdinolak, where iron ore was worked until the mid-19th century. Others became power stations that supplied electricity to nearly population centres. This adaptations took place in the early decades of the 20th century. Others became sawmills.