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Heirloom vegetables open a window to historical flavors

Heirloom vegetables open a window to historical flavors

The pursuit of tastes and textures from the past has many Virginians clamoring for heirloom vegetable varieties, made possible by the obsessive dedication of heirloom seed savers who ensure unique, old-time varieties endure.

Like an oral history that was never recorded, heirloom varieties can be lost if not perpetuated, existing only in memories that inevitably fade. “Heirloom” produce is loosely defined, though its varieties are distinctive.

“An heirloom doesn’t have to be very, very old, but it has to have been grown long enough ago to be a stabilized variety that has demonstrated its identity and value,” said Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Louisa County.

“Traditionally, heirlooms have been maintained for 50 or more years by a family or community, though there are exceptions,” Wallace continued. “Many modern heirlooms were originally commercial varieties dropped from the seed trade, but have been saved by gardeners and passed on through the years since.”

Heirlooms harbor distinct flavors

Heirloom flavors seem to linger on the palate. Last year at Dorey Park Farmers Market in Henrico County, customers repeatedly asked farmer John Bryant for “smooth kale.”

“’That’s what I ate growing up; that’s what my grandmother fixed,’” Bryant recalled customers saying. “But I’d never heard of it.”

Bryant shopped for smooth kale heirloom seeds, known as Vates kale, and planted them for harvest this year.

Bryant, general manager of Old Tavern Farms in New Kent County, grows both heirloom and hybrid vegetables and berries. He is a steward of the same land his grandfather worked more than 100 years ago.

Thirty different lettuce varieties, Papa Cacho potatoes from Peru, oddly shaped Bennings Green Tint squash and Purple Top White Globe turnips are included in the farm’s roster of heirloom varieties. Heirloom beans also perform well and replenish nitrogen in the soil, Bryant said.

Chioggia beets were planted upon request for Chef Tammy Brawley of The Green Kitchen, who is the featured chef on Virginia Farm Bureau’s TV program, Real Virginia.

“Chioggia is an old heirloom variety but doesn’t really look different until you slice it open,” Bryant said. “White- and red-striped—it’s a real pretty beet. It’s got that original old-time beet flavor to it, though a lot of people say it has an earthy taste. You either love them or hate them.”

Bryant said the sugar content of beets has increased through selective breeding, as many newer hybrids are developed for modern tastes and commerce. Typical tomato hybrids are bred to be picked green and gas-ripened for commercial growing and shipping, so they’re intact when stocked in grocery stores.

Those hybrids have improved, Bryant said. “But heirlooms still have it over modern hybrids. And now to some degree, with the resurgence of farmers markets and local produce, there is certainly a segment of the population that wants an heirloom flavor.”

For Bryant, the taste and texture of heirloom tomatoes is iterated in Cherokee Purples. They grew in rows beside Brandywines, Rutgers and Mortgage Lifters on his farm.
“Their pepperiness—it’s what people say a tomato is supposed to taste like.”

Seed savers prep for next season

While Bryant works almost 24/7 on the farm, heirloom seed savers like Wallace carefully prepare seeds for next season.

“That’s what’s great about Ira—the labor and dedication,” Bryant said. “They take all that time to document and select the best seeds for the next year’s crop. We just have to go online and order!”

Beginner seed savers can learn techniques online, but seed packets are affordable enough for home gardeners to attempt their own heirloom gardens.