Thursday, January 27, 2011

Heirloom Veggies - what's all the fuss about?

Heritage Farm, home of Seed Savers Exchange, Iowa

OK so call me an old fuddy-duddy but the buzz about heirloom tomatoes was wearing a bit thin for me by the end of last year. Truth be told I’m not even that fond of tomatoes. I did make an exception for the wonderfully sweet Sungold cherry variety that I grew last summer though. I could eat them straight from the vine - in small quantities. I just got really tired of the endless articles in blogs and magazines about the many wonderful heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables now available thanks to the valiant efforts of various seed companies who have saved and propagated Uncle Fred’s beans and Grandma Betty’s beetroot. “Who cares” I asked myself? “How many varieties of a tomato do we need anyway?” Hmmm, maybe the same populace that needs two entire aisles of a supermarket for breakfast cereals?

Psychedelic beetroot! (Chioggia variety from Italy)
I finally decided to investigate. I do have to admit that I almost yawn when I visit the typical produce displays in supermarkets. Talk about predictable; red tomatoes on-the-vine or red tomatoes off-the-vine; the excitement rises as you spy a wildly over-packaged box of tiny cherry tomatoes only to discover that they are wrinkled and suffering from claustrophobia in their little plastic coffin. It was a visit to a local farmers market that finally opened my eyes last summer as I bought purple ‘green’ beans (if you see what I mean) and glanced nervously at the stripy beetroot and yellow carrots. Definitely intriguing if a little funky.

What exactly does the term heirloom mean anyway? Basically that they are old strains that used to be available but are no longer mass produced. So why aren’t they? Well the large agricultural enterprises can only grow a finite quantity so understandably focus on varieties which give the highest yield per acre, fetch a good price, are easy to sell and will grow without too much fuss and bother. Grandma Betty’s beetroot probably just didn’t make the cut; but that doesn't mean they aren't worth growing, or that their flavor is inferior to the 'usual' variety. Of course it isn’t a simple as that. With new technology, genetically altered seeds are now more profitable as they have been selected for uniform size and shape and the growing conditions can be more easily regulated. So what if the slightly shape-challenged variety has more flavor? Large scale growers can’t afford the luxury of hoping you and I will pay a premium for them. I can see their point but I end up buying less anyway because I find so little of what is on offer to be appetizing.

 The 'Champion of England' pea has a wonderful story to tell
Now don’t misunderstand me. Some old varieties are better left to the compost pile since they didn’t taste that great to begin with, were hopelessly disease prone and had a germination rate of 5% on good day. The value comes from those seeds which have been carefully saved, propagated and tested (i.e. eaten) by growers who actually care about the quality of our food and about offering us a greater selection without resorting to genetic manipulation.

As new seed catalogs seem to appear in my mailbox every day I have found myself strangely drawn to the ‘Champion of England’ pea, offered by Seed Savers Exchange. The seed was sent from a small farm in Wales with an accompanying letter which read “…my grandmother grew this seed in her very large garden in the village of Pickworth, Lincs….She got the seed from the head gardener at a big country house during the war where my grandfather worked as a carpenter repairing wooden greenhouses and cold frames”.  I know it sounds terribly sentimental but I’m a sucker for a good story. Plus I remember shelling peas on our back door step, harvested just minutes earlier from my granddads garden next door.

Weird or wonderful? You must try these 'Dragon' carrots
Maybe ‘Dragon’ carrots are more your thing with their rich red color. Slice through these to discover a bright orange-yellow interior. Imagine these in a salad; a veritable carrot fiesta! Or the Italian heirloom beetroot ‘Chioggia’ introduced to the USA pre-1865. Slice these to reveal red and white concentric circles like a bulls eye. Love tomatoes? Try ‘German pink’ one of the original Bavarian heirloom varieties from the family which started the Seed Savers Exchange program. These 1-2lb beefsteak giants are a meal all on their own.

Below I have listed some of the best seed companies for heirloom seeds in the USA. I’d love someone to tell me the equivalent in the UK as I know there are many readers on that side of the pond who are as weary of Safeway's as I am.

If you’re still on the fence about heirloom varieties or don’t want to grow your own at least plan to visit a farmers market this spring and try something different. You don't need to be a tree-hugging, granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing groupie to enjoy good food. 

Watch for future articles on edible landscaping with heirlooms and ideas for incorporating munchable plants into your container gardens.

Photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange


  1. They remind me of the hypnotic snake, Kaa, in Jungle Book; "Trussssssssst in meeeee"!!

  2. Heirlooms, besides being flavorful with just adding only a touch of salt...are truly vegetable art, with stories to tell...plant 'em, because we don't want to lose their history.

    I LOVE THE PICTS! gorgeous.

    And if you aren't crazy about tomatoes..have you tried an heirloom radish? You'll have to sit down when you eat one, they're that good! Knock you off your feet.

  3. I think I must truly be a romantic gardener as it is indeed the story behind the veggie which appeals to me; even tomatoes! Now radish I can do! I grew 'cherry belle' last year but I guess they're not an heirloom. Any recommendations? Not TOO hot - I want to taste the accompanying wine!


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