Mari, my expert on Cartajima food traditions, mentioned gachas the other day. Never heard of it, said I. What is it? I enquired. Salivating, she described a porridge of wheat flour and water which didn’t sound exactly appetising. But, it had been a childhood food and as such held lovely memories for her.
It turns out that, in northern Spain, gachas are made from the dreaded lathyrus sativus or grass pea which is grown in most parts of the world as animal food. One of the earliest crops to be domesticated and the hardiest legume, it is considered insurance against human hunger as well as animal as it survives when all else has succumbed to drought or pests.
But paradoxically, almorta, as it is called in Spanish, destroys the very lives it saves.
Victims of famine eat what they can to stay alive. The grass pea is there and is high in protein so under such circumstances it becomes the staff of life. But, when consumed more than occasionally, it causes neurolathyrism – a horribly debiliating illness that affects the central nervous system, paralysing and crippling.
In January, 1944, almorta flour was banned in Spain after the horrors of the civil war, not least of which was famine.
Similarly in the Napoleonic Wars, in common with all wars just or unjust, disgusting atrocities were committed by all sides. And the grass pea was a major player in that tragedy.
Goya documented the Disastres de la Guerra in a series of etchings and aquatints. Number Fifty-One shows beggars gathering around a cloaked woman sharing a large bowl of gachas. A recumbent figure illustrates the end result of eating the famine food. He calls this etching enigmatically, Gracias a la Almorta! or Thanks to the grass pea!
Fascinated as I am by this subject and anxious as I am to keep old traditions alive, I will not be including gachas on the menu at Los Castaños!
For more detailed information, these two links are interesting: