Tag Archives: heirloom vegetables

seed saving banned?

View the update to this post here.

Here’s a bit of political unpleasantness I read about in a seed description in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog listing for the Iraqi tomato variety, Rouge D’Irak:

Saving seeds was made illegal under the “Colonial Powers” of the United States. Under the new law, Iraqi farmers must only plant seeds from “protected varieties” from international corporations.

First Hiliburton, then Blackwater, and now monster agribusiness taking advantage of the war. I wish I was surprised.

The Baker Creek online catalog actually lists five different plants of Iraqi origin, in case you’d like to help preserve varieties that Iraqi farmers now can’t legally grow from their own seeds: four tomatoes, Tatar of Mongolistan, Rouge D’Irak, Al-Kuffa, and Nineveh; along with a melon, Baghdad Long. Aren’t you heirloom tomato specialists looking for new varieties to try? How about these plants with an amazing contemporary history?

Doing some quick research on this I ran across a posting over at The Alchemist’s Garden that’s great reading. Take a look!

more ancestral vegetables

One of the things I like to do in art museums is to look at the fruits, flowers and vegetables in still life paintings from a couple or more centuries back. Often I recognize exactly what the plant life is, but other times I see things that look like no plants I’ve seen or food I’ve eaten.

When I was cleaning off my desk at work the other day I ran across an exhibition brochure of Spanish still lifes that one of my coworkers had picked up on her last trip to Barcelona. The show featured work by the like of Goya, Zurabán, and Juan Fernández “El Labrador.” The painting in the brochure that caught my eye was by Jaun Sánchez Cotán, a painter who created one of my favorite series of still life works.

Cotan Still Life
Jaun Sánchez Cotán. Still Life of Game, Vegetables, and Fuit, 1602. Oil on canvas. Prado Museum.

In the painting, in addition to the game, there are lemons and apples that look absolutely recognizable, like what you’d find at a farmer’s market today, though the apples–a beautiful gold with a rosy-red blush–look smaller than the modern hybrids today. The root vegetables look like parsnips, and something else a bit whiter, like today’s daikon radishes. But I doubt daikon would have been a hot seller in 1600s Spain.

The stick to the left with stuff attached to it–What are those? Squab? I can’t make it out clearly in a little two-by-three-inch brochure reproduction. But it’s the massive, gracefully curved veggie to the right that dominates the painting and steals the show. It’s to my eyes a cardoon, an edible thistle very similar to artichokes, though not a variety you see in stores much these days.

There’s a good description of cardoon in the Anioleka Vegetable Seeds Co. listing:

For culinary use, unlike the artichoke where the flower heads are eaten, with Cardoon, it is the thick leaf bases, hearts and roots which are utilized for food and harvested in the early spring to early summer months. Cardoon can be used in soups, stews and salads and has a slightly spicy, celery-like flavor similiar to Artichoke hearts.

Much of Cardoon’s lack of popularity is due to the fact that like the artichoke, a tremendous amount of space is required to grow them. Cardoon can grow up to 7 feet in height and is very evasive [i.e., invasive] in most climates. Care should be taken to remove the flower heads of the plant before they produce seeds, for Cardoon can agressively naturalize throughout your property.

In addition to naturalizing throughout your property, this plant can take do lots of damage to your local ecosystem. You run across large stands of artichoke thistle in the local Southern California canyons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually cardoons loosed from gardens or agriculture. Go ahead and grow them, but grow them responsibly.

But back to the Sánchez Cotán painting. All the beautifully rendered fruits and veggies and game occupy this dramatic space that looks something like a black cupboard or windowsill, but also something that looks like a dark infinite void. Because of this amazing space and ambiguity it looks decidedly modern and fresh to my eyes. And the vibration back and forth of the once-live subjects with the dark dark darkness conjures up notions of life and death, and the fragility of existence–all that without the cheap theatrics of skulls that often appear in paintings like this. This is vanitas painting at its best.

The painter uses this background in several other works, including my absolute favorite one of the series, a painting that so happens to be in the collection of my local art museum:

sanchez cotan painting
Jaun Sánchez Cotán. Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602. Oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.

I can’t tell you how much I love this painting. A good forty percent of the surface is black. Absolute, utter black. The fruits and vegetables begin in the light, and draw your eye as you follow along the graceful curve from the lively quince, to the extravagantly ruffled cabbage, to the sensual melon sliced open with a slice taken out for you to savor with your eyes, and finally to the final vegetable, a cucumber that curves gently but insistently towards the back, towards the enveloping blackness, a blackness that makes itself felt every bit as much as any of the fruits and vegetables.

Quinces and cabbages today look pretty much like what’s in the painting. There are so many melons out there that it’s hard to keep track, but it looks like an ancestor to the French heirloom sold today as Charentais. And the green, lumpy cucumber–It’s totally recognizable, though it looks closer to gherkins or the Asian varieties than the smooth, plastic-surfaced cukes that you see in the stores most of the time.

Interesting vegetables, for sure, and what an amazing painting!

ancestral vegetables

cucumber seed packetSaturday I put some seeds of Armenian cucumber into the ground.

There are heirloom vegetables and then there are ancestral varieties like this, varieties that go so far back into history that to grow them and have them at your table is to connect with history, traditions and the ground that they grow in. The Armenian cucumber dates back at least to the fifteenth century, when it was introduced into Italy from Armenia. I’m sure it was being consumed long before then.

Although called a cucumber it’s actually classified as a melon, Cucumis melo var. flexuosus, and is closer genetically to honeydews than to the standard English or pickling cucumbers. With its unusual ribbed creamy green exterior, you have to do a bit of explaining when you share the extras from the garden: well, yes…it’s called a cucumber, but it’s really something different…

The flesh is mild and firmer than any other cucumber out there, almost crunchy, the texture of unripe melon. The fruits can easily reach 30 inches long, but are best picked when half that size. They’re great in salads, and they pair amazingly well with tomatoes.

Last year I started them in late June and had cucumbers 60 days later. Two hills of plants were plenty for two people, with cukes left over for the neighbors. Pretty good soil, moderate watering and occasional fertilizing kept them happy and productive until the end of September. Some people trellis them, but they’re fine if you let them roam like other melons. I like this variety so much that it’s one of those plants that I’ll keep planting as long as I have room for it.