I’ve always tried to grow at least some of my own food, even if that’s only been herbs in a window box. Now I grow much more, and last week I had a deep disappointment over beetroot, but at least they weren’t mine. I know that for some people the very existence of beetroot might be a deep disappointment, but I’m not one of them. I love beetroot, the earthy taste, the sharp fruity sweetness (if that’s possible), and most of all I love roasted beets chopped into a feta salad. Unfortunately I didn’t grow any myself this year – illness at planting time restricted my activity – and so when I saw some at the local produce market, I grabbed them. They were smaller than most, about the size of a golf ball, promising concentrated flavour.
Wrong. Texture, yes. Flavour? Nah.
You can grow things beautifully, with great care. You can harvest them when they should be tasty and succulent. But if you don’t have a good, tasty variety in the first place, what’s the point? And if you buy seed from the Big Boys your chances of getting a tasty end result are dimininshed. That’s because the Big Boys have to sell approved seed, and approved seed means commercial varieties. Varieties designed for the supermarket, by and large, where taste is not the first priority. Often the seeds on offer are F1 hybrids, so you can’t save the seed because they won’t come true, and they won’t have been bred to suit the domestic grower anyway. Oh, the copy on the packets or the in the catalogues may make them sound good, but stop a mo to consider what some of the wording means. ‘Good for freezing’ for instance, on a packet of French beans. All French beans are good for freezing. What this means in this context is that they’ve been designed (bred or engineered) to all ripen at the same time, which is what commercial growers need. Gardeners do not; we generally prefer our mad, insane, ripening season to be spread out a little bit, if only to ease the stress on our nerves and picking hands. Nor do most of us demand ‘good uniform fruit’ – another strap line – but supermarkets do. Flavour, they’re not so bothered about. And, almost inevitably, many adaptable and delicious (often local) strains of vegetables have been lost in the past 40 or 50 years.
This brings me to a company who are the first of my local food heroes. I’m stretching ‘local’ a bit here, but they are in Wales. South-west Wales, but Wales nonetheless: The Real Seed Catalogue. I try and order most of my seed from them, at least in the beginning – and that’s at their encouragement, because one of their aims, at the cost to their own profits, is to get people to save their own seed. So what’s different about them? That would be almost everything. They specialise in heirloom and heritage seeds, seeds for plants that have been shown to really work, seeds for plants that are packed with flavour.
Take one example, Sutherland Kale. I first grew this a couple of years ago, and it’s a smasher. It’s also a perfect illustration of the philosophy behind Real Seeds. It’s a real heirloom variety, now thought to be extinct except for individual gardens – and the Real Seeds seedbank. It can withstand almost anything in my exposed garden (even cabbage whites, which have been hellish this year), and still perform. And it tastes great, so several ticks for this variety already. Then there’s how it came to be offered through Real Seeds, which illustrates the collaborative community they have built up. As the packet says: ‘This variety was saved for years by Elizabeth Woolcombe of West Drummie in Sutherland, who is now 93. She got it from a kale researcher [who knew there were such jobs?] called Angus Simmonds in the 1950s…’ and it was sent in by someone called V. Shilling. Not exactly a product of intensive development, then, designed to produce lots of kale for a giant supermarket distribution centre in, say, the third week of February. Maybe this year they’ll be adding Shetland Kale, as they have had seeds submitted for trial and it’s currently doing well. And they do trial; nothing gets in the catalogue or on the website unless it works. Everything is grown at their place in Pembrokeshire for family use; if it’s fiddly, fastidious or tasteless it doesn’t make the cut. But it’s not parochial; there’s a wide selection of oriental vegetables, for example, or tasty Bulgarian tomatoes alongside the more familiar Cosse Violette climbing beans and the Verde di Italia courgettes. And they all work.
Adaptability is vital; growing your own vegetables can be chancy enough without unconsciously trying to replicate commercially grown varieties. The small team at Real Seeds also make sure that they select the best seed in the first place, something most gardeners used to do but which is impossible on a highly commercial scale. They also continuously assess the range of seeds they offer, looking at areas which are a little light – runner beans, for instance, or endives – and deliberately going in search of appropriate possibilities. Some of the things they offer might be an acquired taste (I’m not quite sure why I ordered the cucumber I did one time, but let’s just say it didn’t make my cut, though some friends loved it), or completely unfamiliar – but I follow the advice of one of the River Cottage books and grow something unfamiliar every year. And I know that if I fancy growing huauzontle*, there’ll be decent seeds available, clear instructions and even a few recipes delivered with my seeds.
*A Mexican contribution, otherwise known as ‘Aztec greens’, Chenopodium berlandieri. Now you know…