I want to grow vegetables that are tasty and a little bit different. Supermarkets are full of mass produced ‘perfect’ red tomatoes and strawberries but sadly they are so very often lacking in taste. I have long been attracted to the vegetables that they used to grow in Victorian times with their unusual colourings, such as purple carrots, and interested in the whole ‘heritage vegetable’ idea.
If you watch any of the many cookery programmes on TV you may well have heard the presenters talking about ‘heritage carrots’ and ‘heirloom tomatoes’ and the like. As so often happens, old-fashioned has become the new fashion! And thank goodness for that as many traditional types of fruit and vegetable have been all but lost in recent years, falling foul of EU rules and the rise of commercial agriculture. Now, the law and consumer attitudes are changing and ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ crops, passed down through the generations, are making a comeback.
Historically, thousands of different fruit and vegetable varieties were grown on a small scale for people who lived off the land. Many varieties up until the 1920s, maybe later, were bred for gardeners rather than for mass production. But with the move towards intensive farming, the focus was on a small number of crop varieties. Rules introduced by the EU in the 1970s restricted the trade of seed that had not been through an expensive registration process. Sadly, the result was that thousands of heritage varieties became extinct while many others declined. However…
Last year EU laws surrounding non-commercial seed were relaxed and there’s been a surge of renewed interest in old-fashioned seed varieties, not least because of the recent trend for sustainability and home-grown vegetables and no – surprise here – it is also because many of the crops just taste better!
There are lots of interesting things about heritage veg – for example, look at a tomato variety called the Black Russian. Mainstream varieties are bred with a thick skin to protect them in transit on their way to the supermarket, but this traditional variety has a very thin skin, from a time when crops were eaten straight from the garden. And it tastes like a proper tomato too!
One of the fascinations with heritage crops is their individual histories. Take this lovely story: The Trail of Tears Bean, a small, rich-flavoured variety, got its name from Cherokee Indians, who took the bean with them when they were displaced by American settlers in 1838. The bean is now an heirloom passed down through the generations and safe-guarded by Garden Organic in the UK. How wonderful is that?
But the most important thing about of these old varieties may be in the genetic variety they have to offer in the future. As farmers have concentrated on producing few select varieties, the gene pool has shrunk. Experts say it is essential that we preserve these different varieties because we may well need them if one of the big commercial varieties fails… Yet another example of when biggest is not always best. I shall now go and research the history of my vegetable seeds before I start planting!