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.
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.”
My journey began collecting wild mustard greens from the fields near home. I was 8 and dressed in a yellow rain coat and red rubber boots in a warm wet “pineapple express”. A kind of storm that makes the frogs start up, the air fill up with the smell of wet grass, and heralds in the first meadow larks to song. These are fond memories of my first solo foraging foray. On those journeys I would find and collect the most tenderest leaves and make bundles to sell to the neighbors. Luckily enough one of my neighbors was a talented French chef and had just opened a cooking school at her house. Her backyard garden was impressive and her passion for using fresh ingredients inspired me. My backyard was open space that stretched for miles, a place where wild things grew; sweet mustard greens, dry farmed apricots, wild walnuts and liqurice flavored fennel. My foraging and her passions collided and I found myself hiking the hills in search of fresh things. It was 1975 and suburbia erupted, paving over vast acres of orchards, the bay area food scene was a mere blip on the radar, and Mrs Wicks represented a beacon in a food desert.
What really got it going was my early impressions at the age of 5 on a family trip to Europe. I witnessed first hand an abundant food and food culture. I was quickly seduced by fresh hot Parisian baquettes and the many cheese carts bearing stinky French camenbert, and wowed by baby Nantes carrots in Belgium. The stores were filled with charcuterie, prosciutto, olives and olive oil, and real swiss chocolate. In Barclona, on a beach with bonfire and Flamingo dancers, we dined on saffron infused Paella followed by copiuos bowls of fruit and flan. This wasn’t a show it was the real stuff. On my second trip to Europe at age 10 we traveled through Switzerland, all of Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia. The vibrant Italian food culture was alive with farmers markets, tratorias, expresso bars, and pastries and cakes of unimaginable sophistication. Every eating place had it’s backyard garden were they grew tomatoes, cucumbers and onions to make the most delicious fresh salads that were signature to every town and region.
Years later I settled in Calaveras County and moved into a neighborhood right our of Po Valley, Italy. Two sets of neighbors practiced the traditional lifestyles that I witnessed in my early trips to Europe as a boy. Their lifestyles mimicked the old ways and it was said that all they needed was flour, buckshot and salt. Everything else they grew themselves. Ernie Vogliotti moved to the ranch at age 13 and never held a job outside of the farm. Famous for their tomatoes and onions (of which we still continue to grow), they foraged for mushrooms, hunted quail and deer, raised chickens and hogs and made wine and proscuitto. Josephine, Ernie’s sister, told me that she thought the “whole world had gone crazy and how can you stay healthy without growing vege-tables”.
Eric Taylor, Farmer
Surprise! Zucchini season has begun…never before have we had them so early. The tunnel houses are amazing and a great investment that is paying off with early crops. So far, the basil and tomatoes are surviving the frigid early April temperatures and we feel pretty confident that they’ll make it through. The forecast is calling for 80 degree weather next week and we are gearing up our garden crew with this preparation: “Monday the checkered flag comes down so make sure yer oil’s changed and yer gas tanks’r full” It has been observed that the swapping out of the Winter birds (sparrows) for the new arrival Summer birds (Tanager) is a sure sign that we are about to experience some warm weather.
Surprisingly, the fava beans are 5 feet tall – amazing with the little rainfall we’ve had and no supplemental water. The fava is an ancient cultivated plant thought to have been present in the Mediterranean diet around 6000 BC or earlier. The whole plant is edible and fava greens make a delicious complement to any dish as an edible garnish. The flowers are extremely fragrant and can also be eaten. But the pods are what we are waiting for; Italians are so passionate about fava beans that they celebrate the arrival of the first protein of the season with a national holiday! Other benefits of legumes are discussed in an interesting article from one of our dedicated perveyors: Terra Firma Farm.