The grasspea landrace Inchixa from Sardinia (Italy), wins the Arca Deli Award 2016

This blogpost was written by Marianna Virdis & Francesco Maxia, Sa laurera farm, Sardinia, Italy

Grasspea Lathyrus sativus has been widely cultivated as food and animal feed in South Asia, West Africa and the Mediterranean area for over 2500 years. It is a grain legume with excellent agronomic qualities of resistance and adaptability to the most varied conditions of soil and water availability. For these qualities, it was widely known in the past as a "life-saving" food.

However, excessive consumption of grasspea grains causes a motor neuron disease called lathyrism,  which has caused a drastic reduction of the crop worldwide.

In Italy, the reduction of grasspea has contributed to its relegation to the neglected crops in the national agricultural panorama. Italian landraces are known mainly in the country’s southern regions such as Sicily, with a great variety of local names.

Its cultivation is also spread to Sardinia, where it first occurred in the Bronze Age (1), and has hence represented a traditional crop for many centuries (e.g. 2; 3). Although in this Italian island the crop had previously been widespread, it was almost completely abandoned after the Second World War. Today, most elderly in rural environments disdain the product, considering it a "bad memory" of the past. Moreover, the false interpretation of the grasspea as a toxic plant has drawn away the attention of many potential consumers.

Today, it is recognized that lathyrism is the clinical symptom of poverty and malnutrition, and that grasspea is not a toxic plant, but instead a previously neglected crop to be recovered as well as a safe and healthy food in the context of a balanced diet (4). In Sardinia, new generations and urban dwellers, who are increasingly sensitive to issues related to health, food and local gastronomic traditions, not only appreciate the legume but actively seek it out.

Traditionally, this type of pulse was a main ingredient in soups and stews. Until the beginning of 1900 A.D. a cake was made of grasspea and honey or grape must (su pistiddàiu or is tziddinis) (5).

On Sa Laurera farm in Sardinia, we grow one landrace of grasspea called Inchixa, (the name comes from from the Catalan word Guixa). Other Sardinian local names for grasspea are Denti de bècia, Piseddu, Pisu-faa, Pisu a tres atzas. Propagation material used to start the recovery of landrace derives from small-scale cultivations of our relatives, who have mostly cultivated this crop for self-consumption.

The cultivation of Inchixa is entirely based on dryland farming and manual operations. Depending on pedoclimatic conditions, sowing either takes place in November or between February and March. Seeds are sown in groups of 3-4 each, around 15 cm in length (in Sardinian: a paloni) or in 10x40 cm rows (in Sardinian: a codroni). Hilling is performed twice, while digging, fertilizing and irrigation are not provided.

Inchixa is harvested manually in June and the whole plant is extracted when the pods are almost completely dry. The drying of the pods continues on sheaves exposed to the sun for a few days. These are then threshed and subsequently the seeds are separated from chaff by means of the winnowing method. This traditional crop cycle largely corresponds to the description of grasspea in Manca dell’Arca’s treatise “Agricoltura di Sardegna”  from the late eighteenth century. (2).

In 2016, the SAVE Foundation announced the Arca Deli Award which is dedicated to products derived from the cultivation of local rare or endangered varieties that were recovered and maintained on a farm and are appropriately valued. We chose to compete with our Inchixa.

At the annual meeting of the foundation held in Metlika, Slovenia in September the SAVE jury met to evaluate products that had entered the competition.

A few weeks ago, we were informed that we are among the six winners! Sa Laurera is the only Italian company to have won the Arca Deli Award 2016, and our grasspea is the first Sardinian pulse to receive international recognition.

​From a toxic plant, contraindicated for human consumption, to an interesting crop that deserves to be reassessed for its nutritional and nutraceutical features: It is particularly rich in protein, containing around 30g of protein per 100g of edible seeds (7), and seems to have positive effects for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and osteoporosis (8).

The Inchixa example shows that small-scale farm work can be a starting point for the recovery and development of forgotten foods.

 

References

(1) Ucchesu M., Peña-Chocarro L., Sabato D., Tanda G. (2014). Bronze Age subsistence in Sardinia, Italy: cultivated plants and wild resources. Veget. Hist. Archaeobot. 24:343-355.

(2) Manca dell’Arca A. (1780). Agricoltura di Sardegna. Vincenzo Orsino, Napoli.

(3) Casalis G. (1833-56). Dizionario geografico-storico-statistico-commerciale degli Stati di S.M. il Re di Sardegna. G. Maspero e G. Marzorati, Torino.

(4) Labein F., Kuo Y. (2009). Lathyrism. Grain Legumes, 54:8-9.

(5) Atzei A.D. (2003). Le piante nella tradizione popolare della Sardegna. Carlo Delfino, Sassari.

(7) Tsegaye M. (2007). Assessment of diversity, morphological variation and description of grasspea (lathyrus sativus) and other related species. Th. Master of Science in Biology. Addis Ababa University.

(8) Singh Surya S., S.L.N. Rao (2013). Lessons from Neurolathyrism: A Disease of the Past & the Future of Lathyrus Sativus (Khesari Dal). The Indian Journal of Medical Research 138(1): 32-37.

The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions.


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