In response to this modern lack of variety in our fresh produce, growers are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of ‘Heritage’ or ‘Heirloom’ fruit and vegetables. These are native and by definition, old varieties that are beginning to be seen on restaurant and pub menus and popping up at local greengrocers, farm shops and farmers markets. These crops are often distinct in appearance from our current mainstream varieties; a classic example of which would be the knobbly white carrots native to the UK that are resurging in popularity because of their sweetness in comparison to their orange-coloured Dutch cousins. The orange carrot with which we are so familiar, was in fact cultivated back in the 17th Century as a new and interesting variety for a public excited by novel objects. Not much has changed. Heeding this, we should be aware that an exciting new look can be deceiving.
Left to their own devices, all apple trees would produce their own single variety. Over the centuries, to preserve the flavours, textures and crop health, the growers of desired apple varieties have been using Rootstock and Coin growing methods to pick and choose the attributes that pleased them. In an age of mass consumption however, the problem now lies in supermarkets, rather than with farmers dictating those attributes. Scott further explains, “If you were to grow Gala with its own roots, it would be a different shaped tree and a different size.” This, however, makes them harder and more costly to harvest. What is normally dictated to farmers is to grow “cultivars which are acceptable to the market, so have a good colour, good appearance and good shelf life – and obviously good flavour (but flavour is a very subjective thing).”
For the wealth of over 1000 cultivars of apples in the UK, we have British horticulturists of the Victorian era to thank and the high levels of experimentation and competition that sprung up amongst them. “There are vast numbers of older varieties. Some of the well-known ones are things like Ellison’s Orange or James Greave that many older people would recognise and remember their grandparents growing in the back gardens.”
Crop breeding, despite occasionally being criticised as ‘Franken food’, is not the enemy of good agriculture. These practices actually stretch back to the first primitive farmers who selected seeds for the next crop from their strongest, tastiest plants. Modern science has contributed to these traditional practices by allowing for great advancements in the ability to edit and splice seeds at a genetic level. The difference in this level of crop breeding, however often means that while crops can be made with hardy attributes, they are not necessarily the variety specific to the land that they come from and therefore, best suited to the soil.