Heirloom Vegetables

“Vegetables don’t taste like they used to! My Ouma used to grow giant tomatos, almost all flesh with an amazing flavour!”

What happened to watermelons that tasted like real watermelons and not like mildly flavoured water? You know, green beans never used to taste this bland!

How often have you heard these statements? What happened to all those old vegetables? Those massive, blood-red tomatoes? Real beans with full meaty flavours? Firm carrots that tasted oh-so-sweet? Sweetcorn that had a sugarcane aftertaste? Spanspek whose scent made your mouth water as you cut it open?

Is your mouth watering yet? Most of us remember what real veggies tasted like. But you don’t get them anymore… do you?

Enter the heirloom vegetable. Heirloom vegetables often have hundreds of years of romance and history behind them, and without a doubt taste infinitely better than what’s on offer from the local supermarket or greengrocer. What the heirloom represents is a direct link, back into history. It gives us the ability to eat a vegetable that our forefathers ate hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

Why is it so hard to get heirloom vegetables? Well, it’s simply a case of economics. Heirlooms are not protected by PBR (Plant Breeders Rights) as many modern open pollinated, and almost all hybrid, varieties are. One cannot use a hybrid in a seed-saving exercise and every year you need to purchase fresh seed from the grower. Hence, the commercial viability of hybrids.

With Heirlooms on the other hand, one only needs to purchase the seed once. After that you are able to save your own seed year after year, and never need to buy seed again. A truly self-sustainable idea!

The simplest way of defining heirlooms are as seeds (any seeds) that are handed down from generation to generation. Some companies and gardeners use a cut-off date  like 1951, or a minimum age, like 50 or 100 years to define an heirloom.

However, being prescriptive is not my style, so I prefer the simpler definition. But I must admit that the older the variety is, the more romantic and desirable it is. They are like living antiques. To give you an example, I have seeds that were handed down to me from my Ouma that form part of my heirloom collection. Is it an heirloom? Yes, to me it is. Does it have a story behind it? Yes it does, and that’s one of the traits of an heirloom variety.

Most heirloom vegetables have a rich and diverse histories behind them which often tell a stories of success and triumph, and sometimes pain and suffering. Take for example the Mortgage Lifter tomato bred by Charlie Byles. “Radiator Charlie” as he was known, had a thriving radiator business at the foot of a steep hill. However during the Great Depression, his business fell on hard times. Radiator Charlie used his four top-producing tomato strains to create the Mortgage Lifter, he subsequently sold the plants at the ridiculous price of $1 per seedling. In the early 1940s that was a fortune for a single plant. However, within a few years he had paid off the mortgage on his property. The story goes that some familieswould drive hundreds of kilometres to collect seedlings from him every year, such was the renown of his tomato. It is now thanks to people that call themselves seed-savers that we still have this unique heirloom variety available today, otherwise it would have been lost to mankind forever.

There is a variety of black tomato that going by the name of Carbon which has a unique, dark green-purple sheen. Its looks are not much to write home about, however its flavour is outstanding. It is one of a host of ‘black’ tomatoes that are making a fashionable comeback. This specific tomato has won a taste test for the best tasting tomato in the world. I have offered slices of strange-looking black tomatoes to people that cannot get their heads around eating the unusually coloured fruit. However, once they take that first bite, they are immediate converts to the Heirloom cause!

In the Americas, where corn originates, there are some outstanding and unusual varieties of corn. One of my favourites is the Indian Rainbow Corn. It has a multi-coloured cob in a rainbow of white, yellow, red, purple, brown and black kernels. It can be used as a sweetcorn in the milk stage or ground down to a very high quality meal for mieliepap when dry.  South Africa also has its own varieties of heirloom corn, all descended from the original American varieties, but adapted to our conditions. I have been fortunate to obtain some of these local varieties and we are busy running trials and expanding seed stock of these varieties, with the intention that these varieties will not be lost to the people of South Africa.

One of the staple foods around the world is beans. There are beans that will satisfy every gardener, whether green, dry or dual purpose. There are thousands of varieties of North American beans that were grown in a special combination with corn and pumpkins, the corn providing support for the beans, the pumpkins providing shade which elped with water conservation, and the beans giving a nitrogen fix to the other two.  A true example of companion planting which was practised hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

One variety of bean that I grow is the Borlotto Fire Tongue, which are good both green and dry. The mature pods have a unique ‘flamed’ look which is really eye-catching. When dried, the beans have the lovely nutty flavour typical of Italian soups and stews. The bean was originally found on Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America and was subsequently sent to Italy where it established itself in traditional Italian cookery. It came to South Africa by way of Italian immigrants.

Here is some interesting history: did you know that carrots were not originally orange? They were available in  many colours, from pitch black, purple and red to yellow and pure white, and all the shades in-between, but not orange! The orange carrot that we know today was specifically developed in the 1500s for the Dutch Royal Family, the House of Orange.

Very soon the other colours lost favour and as they were no longer planted, nobody kept seed and very quickly most were lost to the world. Luckily, a few of these unique colours have been kept alive, but only a small sample of the range which was once available.

Where does one get Heirloom vegetable seed in South Africa? Until now, there has never been a legal source of heirloom and open pollinated seed in this country. But, in a few months’ time, Living Seeds, my new South African seed house, will be opening for business, catering specifically to the gardener who wants to plant heirloom and open pollinated vegetables. In addition our objective is also to become a publically available repository that allows for the easy exchange and distribution of Heirloom and open pollinated seed, and also to help preserve the genetic diversity of traditional South African vegetable and crop types.

Currently we have a limited variety available to the public, however we are busy ramping up seed quantities of the well over 200 heirloom and open pollinated varieties that we have in our collection. Look out for the next issue Shared Earth where you will be able to get a sneak preview, as well as an exciting promotion with some of the varieties that will be available to the South African gardener for the Spring 09 planting season.

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