Sunday, April 12, 2009

Slow Food Talks Tomatoes with Royer Held!

The most recent edition of the Slow Food Huron Valley newsletter features Royer Held, a wonderful and knowledgeable gardener, who also just happens to be a Project Grow volunteer! Royer leads a number of classes for Project Grow, and helps make our heirloom gardening and seed collection possible. (You can see some of Royer's and our other volunteers handywork at our upcoming plant sales - Friday, May 8th through Sunday, May 10th at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Saturday, May 16th in front of the People's Food Coop.) 

Heirlooms: A Journey in Taste

by KT Tomey

According to Royer Held, the ideal tomato texture should be creamy to slightly succulent. A creamy tomato, in his opinion, is one that you don’t have to bite into. You can just press it against the top of your mouth and it squishes. Succulent, on the other hand, is more firm than creamy, with more substance. The worst possible texture scenario is crunchy, a dire situation Held refers to as “a grocery store tomato in winter.” Software developer by day, Held has become something of an heirloom plant authority in Ann Arbor, and he absolutely loves tomatoes. Especially heirlooms. So what exactly are heirloom fruits and vegetables? The term “heirloom” refers to plants that are "open-pollinated," i.e., by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms (sometimes heirlooms are hand-pollinated to preserve the purity of the variety). While the definition can get a bit complex when it comes to fruit trees because they are reproduced by grafting (instead of through pollination), basically, heirlooms exclude hybrids and genetically modified organisms.

Take two tomato varieties: Olga’s Yellow Round Chicken, a Russian heirloom variety, vs. the Celebrity Supreme hybrid tomato. Whereas a bucket of the “Chickens” will each have a slightly unique shape, size, texture and color, the “Celebrities” are bred to look like a Hollywood tomato—uniformly shaped, smooth and red. But aesthetics are not the defining feature of a Hollywood tomato. Hybrids are specifically bred to withstand mechanical picking, the anticipated long journey from industrial farm to fork, as well as drought, frost, and pesticides.

One thing the “grocery store in winter” hybrids are not known for: taste. Mark Wilson of Wilson’s Farm has been specializing in heirlooms since 2001, and his preference for these varieties can be summed up in two words: “better flavor.” Wilson, who got into farming about ten years ago when he discovered it was easier to sell his extra garden produce rather than give it away, hangs a shingle at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market all summer. He sells melons, tomatoes, peppers, onions, summer squashes, grapes, and beans, but is most known for delicious tomatoes. His most popular are pink, yellow and red Brandywines. He also recommends trying the Charentais French melon, celebrated for its heady, perfumey aroma and deep, sweet flavor. (The French traditionally serve Charentais with prosciutto, but also feature them as an hors d'oeuvre by cutting them in half, scooping out the seeds and filling them with a sweet wine such as Barsac, Marsala, Port or Madiera.)

Wilson’s Farm’s heirlooms are considered a specialty item today, but 100 years ago there was no such thing as commercially bred hybrid plants. The plots of farmers and gardeners across the country each had their own personality. Saving and replanting seeds from each generation of plants allowed varieties like the Cherokee Moon and Stars Watermelon and the Elephant Heart Plum to adapt to their climate, and the selection of crop varieties reflected a farmer’s unique tastes. The transition to the less interesting and flavorful hybrids started around 1900 and today, many traditional heirlooms are at risk of falling off the nation’s radar—and plates.

Erica Kempter, co-owner of Nature and Nurture LLC and organic gardening teacher, worries that the disappearance of heritage foods will create a loss of genetic and cultural diversity. According to Kempter, who is particularly fond of a purple carrot named the “Dragon,” “we’re losing genetic diversity because farmers are not growing open pollinated varieties.” This concern, shared by farmers, gardeners, environmentalists, foodies, and chefs across the country and, in fact world, was the inspiration for The Ark of Taste. Launched by Slow Food just over ten years ago, it aims to preserve and celebrate traditional foods at risk of being forever forgotten—and never tasted. The Ark is essentially a catalog of endangered foods, and includes foods with names as unique as their personalities. Heirlooms such as Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato can be found on the Ark, along with other traditional foods of all kinds.

Preserving these varieties, according to Kempter, is also important in keeping seeds and crops in the hands of the people, not corporations (we are facing a conglomeration of seed companies since Monsanto has been buying up seed companies of late).

Thinking you might give heirlooms a try this season? A good place to start is the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, “in person” seed savers exchanges, or by contacting Project Grow for information about seed and seedling sales. Look for seeds that originate from the Detroit area’s latitude and climate (e.g., Rome). Once you start growing them, you can save your own seeds, an act Royer Held refers to as “getting in touch with your inner peasant.” Of course, you can also have a great time tasting these varieties, many of which show up at events like the September Ann Arbor tomato tasting and competition in which the medal is awarded to the tomato rather than person who grew it. Bon appetit!

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