Because they are the tastiest always! That’s the short answer, the long answer is more complicated. Once upon a time all vegetables were heirloom – the definition is simply varieties of fruits and vegetables where the seed is viable and true to type (with some genetic diversity) and passed down through the generations human to human. Heirloom implies traditional, old, heritage and something you’d likely find everywhere if you went back in history 60 years. Today, heirlooms are making a big comeback – they are finally trendy! They tend to have a ton of flavor, come in odd shapes and not look at all like anything you typically see in a grocery store. The downside of an heirloom is it’s lack of shelf life. No big deal if you shop at a farmers market or grow your own garden, but if you shop regularly at a grocery store you are unlikely to find an heirloom anywhere.
Thank goodness heirlooms are making a comeback and becoming more of a household word! Up to 90% of diversity within food crops has been lost since the turn of the last century replaced by one variety of corn, one variety of cucumber, one variety of tomato and so forth. With the resurgence of interest and the return of a discerning palate heirlooms are out of danger for now. If you are interested in learning and growing heirlooms you’ll want to know about the amazing work of Seed Saver’s Exchange in Iowa. They have literally rescued thousands of varieties of endangered seeds and making them available to the public. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company is another entrepreneurial business venture that began for Jeri Gettle in his bedroom when he was a teenager. They sell thousands of seeds from all over the world and hosts the National Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa every year.
We were blessed to have moved in next door to Italian market gardeners that operated at the turn of the 20th century up until the late 1970s. They were famous for their onions and tomatoes and that legacy continues today. We are very proud to continue growing these two local heirlooms – the red Camay tomato and the sweet red onion. Both of which are available now at our farm stand and through our CSA.
I find harvesting is one of the most satisfying activities for a number of reasons. The most obvious is reaping what you sow, and the less obvious and equally rewarding is the way in which it puts one’s mind to rest.
The combination creates an experience that is uplifting and gratifying like none other. I have discovered over time that dropping into the spaciousness of “being in the moment” can be done with ease while harvesting. Getting close to a plant requires getting down to ground level and this act of kneeling and squatting is deeply cathartic. Grounding oneself literally on the earth is the first step, the second is feeling your way into the activity. This requires some mental stimulation but once you get the swing of things you can drop into auto mode and free the mind. It’s in this state of present moment awareness that time slows down and almost simultaneously surrounding sounds become louder and more acute. Awareness to one’s surroundings and the subtleties of aroma and feeling are pronounced. It’s here at the juncture of timelessness where the breath is a rhythmic exchange of energy with all elements.
Wendell Berry is my hero! His many essays on American agriculture are so in-depth and beautifully written that whole landscapes of understanding are born by just reading his works. His writing is grounded in the notion that “one’s work ought to be rooted in and responsive to one’s place”. He reminds me of my other hero, John Muir in the way that he captures our imagination. Living in the early 1900’s the voice of nature was yet to be recognized and described – John Muir did this perfectly and very effectively. I was reading a snippet of a story written by a fellow adventurer of John Muir and was struck by the description, as was the writer, of the way Muir related so intimately to the plants and flowers as if greeting an old family member; cooing and exclaiming all the while, picking and stashing samples until his jacket was full!
This reminds me of yet another hero and a perfect moment that describes this intimate connection. We often visited our then centenarian neighbor, Josephine Quirelo (nee Vogliotti) in the height of summer and would bring her vegetables and especially tomatoes. We were so proud of the tomatoes we grew (and still grow), the seeds of which she and her family had saved for well over 80 years, and we were so excited to bring her some to eat. She greeted us and held the tomato in her cupped hands, smelling the distinct aroma and looked at us both with wide eyes and declared “this is one of ours isn’t it?” It still brings a tear to my eyes as I remember her filling up with joy and relaxing with ease in the knowledge that her tomato would remain a legacy for many more years to come. For over 25 years (that makes them well over 100 years a Murphys’ heirloom) we have planted this same variety, and in fact today, May 2nd I planted the first succession of these babies. I am in present moment awareness, listening and hearing Josephine’s joyful exclamation.
One asks oneself “what motivates and inspires the work I do?” and my reply is love and beauty, compassion and caring in the greater context of making a difference.
Drawing in the Outer Aisle.
“A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged in the loamy soil of Taylor Mountain Gardens, sketching a light purple Asian eggplant. Owners Christine and Eric Taylor had just given me a tour of their lovely slice of organic paradise, and introduced me to at least 4 kinds of eggplant growing in lush, thick rows. Eggplant heaven.”
It was one warm summer day, twenty year’s ago or so, that we went to visit our neighbor, Josephine (nee Vogliotti). She was the last living member of her family at age 96 – her brother Ernie was 102 when he died. The family was famous for their “vegii-tables” selling them to the miners by horse-cart in the day and later to folks that would come out to the ranch.
This incredible specimen is a true Murphys’ heirloom from the Vogliotti family. They were Italian market gardeners and also our neighbors for a good many years. For several years we’d been growing “their” tomato, the Camalay and when we would bring her one to enjoy she would hold it in her hands and smell deeply, exclaiming “this is one of ours, isn’t it?” What a precious moment that was and still is today, after 22 years of growing and saving seed from that tomato, her words spring a tear. It was on one of these visits that Josephine directed us down to the cellar, where she hadn’t been for many years, to a jar on the shelf filled with onion seeds. We took those seeds home and germinated them just as she instructed: “Plant them on the first week after the full moon in August!” Luckily, a few sprouted and we grew our first Vogliotti onion that year. After many trials and near losses, we were able to successfully bring this onion from near extinction to abundance.
We have subsequently grown, harvested and shared many of the seeds with gardening friends to help preserve this now unique variety. The story goes that the onion was bought from Burpee seeds as a “Red Weathersfield” in the early 1890’s and continually grown at the ranch until the early 1990’s. The Vogliottis grew this same variety of seed for 100 years because of it’s flavor! We consider it be the best-tasting summer onions ever. Eaten raw, it is sweet and mild flavored, so wonderful that it is perfect in a Greek salad or in a sandwich with no onion-y aftertaste — equally delicious sauteed or caramalized.
This method is really the god-send for the hurried household. Most vegetables not only improve with a high-heat roasting, around 400 degrees, but it’s easy, and quick – you can roast a whole chicken in an hour this way, just turn the oven down to 350 after a half hour. Carrots, potatoes, turnips, radishes (yes, radishes!) and even kale can be roasted and served immediately or bagged and thrown in the fridge for later meals.
And as a good roasting releases and caramelizes the natural sugars, a pre-roasting for soup and stew ingredients can add a richness and depth of flavor that raw veggies can’t match. Some veggies, like these sprouts, benefit from just the lightest of tossing in oil and seasoning, while others, like yams, sweet potatoes and carrots need a more generous coating. Experiment with fresh and dried herbs, roasting garlic along with your veggies to impart that golden roasted flavor and finishing with a bright acid, like lemon juice or vinegar. You really can’t go wrong.
- 1 lb Brussels sprouts, halved
- 1/2 pound red radishes, halved, quartered if large
- 1 T olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, reduced by at least half, until thick
- preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut sprouts from stem, cut large ones in half, peel stem and cut into similar sized chunks. Toss in large bowl with olive oil and radishes. Space on a large roasting pan and place in top rack of the oven. If you have a convection oven turn it on, watching they don’t burn as this will cut your cooking time in half. Roast until leaves are brown and crisp and heads are tender and brown. Radishes will be brown but still slightly crunchy. Remove and plate, sprinkling with balsamic reduction.
The Blacktail Mountain watermelon is the perfect refrigerator size, that’s if you don’t devour the entire melon in one sitting. Not hard to do when it’s a 100 degrees and you’re looking for that perfect hydrating fruit. Nutritionally it is up there in Lycopene content with tomatoes. Check out this website for more information on just how healthy watermelon is for you.
Blacktail is a modern open-pollinated watermelon variety that was originally bred by a young boy of 17, Glenn Drowns, in 1979. We’ve grown this exceptional watermelon for several years and a couple of years ago created a public seed saving event by giving the watermelon away with the caveat that folks would enjoy and spit the seeds out, save them and return to us. We still have a generous supply of seeds that will keep us in watermelons for several years to come.
“Blacktail Mountain is quintessential watermelon. This dark green cannon ball is shot full of flavor. Its dense scarlet flesh is sweet, juicy and crunchy. . . . . The quintessential icebox watermelon that sets the standard for flavor.”
Amy Goldman, Melons for the Passionate Grower.
More on the Blacktail Watermelon and its juicy history
We recently harvested our onion crop – a bumper crop this year and surprisingly so because we planted them in January. This incredible specimen is a true Murphys’ heirloom from the Vogliotti family. They were Italian market gardeners and also our neighbors for a good many years. It was one warm summer day, twenty year’s ago or so, that we went to visit Josephine Vogliotti. She was the last living member of her family at age 96 – her brother Ernie was 102 when he died
. The family was famous for their “vege-tables”, as she liked to say, selling them to the miners by horsecart in the day and later to folks that would come out to the ranch. For several years we’d been growing “their” tomato, the Camalay, and we would often bring her down a couple to enjoy and as always she would hold one in her hands and smell deeply, exclaiming “this is one of ours, isn’t it?” Those were precious moments and still today, after 22 years of growing and saving seed from that tomato, her words spring a tear. It was on one of these visits that Josephine directed us down to the cellar (where she hadn’t been for many years) to a jar on the shelf filled with onion seeds. We took those seeds home and germinated them just as she instructed (the first week after the full moon in August!). Luckily a few sprouted and that year we grew our first Vogliotti onion. After many trials and near losses, we were able to successfully bring this onion from near extinction to plenty. We have subsequently grown, harvested and shared many of the seeds with gardening friends to help preserve this now unique variety. The story goes that the onion was bought from Burpee seeds as a Red Weathersfield in the late 1890’s and continually grown at the ranch until the early 1990’s. They grew it for 100 years because of it’s flavor! We consider it be the best tasting summer onions ever. Eaten raw it is sweet and mild flavored, wonderfully so that it is perfect in a Greek salad or in a sandwich (with no oniony aftertaste!). Equally delicious sauteed or caramelized.
We posted a recipe to try it out on here