The Resurrection of the Cob: The Millo Corvo (The Black Corn)

Brilliant black, shiny like a crows feathers, a black deep as azabache, the Millo Corvo lies locked away in a stone grain store, an horreo, drying through the wet Atlantic winter. This black corn is an ancient strain of maize, brought to Galicia countless centuries ago from the New World, and lost not so long ago to the Old World,  disappearing against the march of sterilised and genetically modified strains of corn. But my guide Victoria Martínez Barreiro has spent years working for the resurrection of this beautiful corn in her community. I talk to Victoria on her small parcel of land, looking down onto a superb, light-flooded view of the Ría de Pontevedra, in Galicia’s south-western peninsula of O Morrazo.

 

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The Horreo, the traditional grain store of the region

The Millo Corvo, she tells me, is an ancient strain of corn with origins in Mexico. There maiz meant sustenance and life, and so was seen as sacred, being worshipped as a gift from the gods. Symbols of corn abound on all kinds of pre-Colombian artwork and architecture, their gods frequently portrayed with a cob in hand.

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But in this corner of the Old World, Victoria explains, corn cuisine came to a radically different fate. After centuries of cultivation by the local peasantry, Millo Corvo in the twentieth century was literally desecrated – to be made un-sacred – when people begun to see it as campecho – as being of the country, of the rural poor – and chose instead to consume the white-floured wheat, a more bourgeois bread than the dark bread of the peasants.

Millo Corvo is their host; a symbol of community and a communion with the rural past. In a world so sterilised and standardised as our own, the Millo Corvo is a seed of biological and cultural diversity…

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But against this rural self-flagellation, Victoria and her companions want to save this symbol of rural Galicia from disappearance, promoting its cultivation, harvest and consumption through the Meiro Cultural Association. During the periods of ploughing and sowing, the community comes together to help out, preferring manual methods such as oxen to mechanical ones such as tractors when and where possible to remain faithful to the often communal nature that defined rural work in the past. As another friend said, “the tractor does not unite anyone, it disunites”.

Once planted and grown to head height, the association again gets together to cut the cobs from the stems, drying the stems in triangular piles called palleiros for use throughout the coming months as animal feed and fertiliser. Once the cobs are collected, they are placed inside an elevated stone grain store, the horreos, “as if it wore a freezer”, protecting them from the humidity and water that soaks this corner of the world for much of the year. The quality cobs are hung up to dry, and the others are left in piles on the floor of the horreo.

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The black corn cobs hang in pairs above me, and lie in bundles below, now ready to be milled into flour and later baked as bread. The mills dot the streams that run down from the hills into the valleys, and while most of them now are abandoned, some have been restored by the association in order to revive the methods of old. The mills function with great spoons that catch the channelled water, so turning an enormous millstone in the chamber above on a fixed stone below it, the grains of maize falling into the stones to be crushed into a fine powder.

 

The old and beautiful tradition of breaking bread then takes place, and the community and visiting tourists celebrate this corn of the gods by sharing wine in a great springtime festivity. Millo Corvo is their host; a symbol of community and a communion with the rural past. In a world so sterilised and standardised as our own, the Millo Corvo is a seed of biological and cultural diversity.

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