Apples ‘Harvey’, ‘Cox’s Pomona’, ‘Opalescent’, ‘Starkrimson’ and ‘Annie Elizabeth’
Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Eating history

Fruit and vegetable cultivation in Britain began before the Romans arrived, was nearly destroyed after the Great War and is now being restored by plant hunters with a passion for heritage varieties

Written by Carolyn Hart

Fruit and vegetable cultivation in Britain began before the Romans arrived, was nearly destroyed after the Great War and is now being restored by plant hunters with a passion for heritage varieties. By Carolyn Hart In about AD800, the number of plants in cultivation in Britain was in the region of a hundred. By 1400, the number had risen to about 250. Studies of medieval and later texts reveal that most fruits and many vegetables with which we are familiar today were already in cultivation here by the start of the 15th century.

These fascinating facts can be found in Heritage Fruits & Vegetables, a glorious photographic record of the history of our fruit and vegetable cultivation, and the gradual modern revival of old-fashioned seeds and cultivars.

British-Food-May25-02-590Left: Orange ‘Valencia’. Right: Chard ‘Rainbow’, ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Swiss’. Inset: Rhubarb ‘Reed’s Early Superb’ and ‘Timperley Early’

As they have with so much else, Royalty has played an eccentric but vital part in the history of cultivation in this country. Many of our heritage varieties extend back to Henry VIII who, in between sacking monasteries and getting married, was an unexpectedly avid creator of gardens, dispatching his Royal fruiterers, John Wolf and Richard Harris, abroad to bring back new plants. Where Henry led, other noblemen followed. Sir Francis Carew, who was the first person in England to raise an orange from seed – a Seville orange pip – received from Sir Walter Raleigh in 1560.

British-Food-May25-03-590Left: Plum 'Bountiful'. Right: Fig 'Brown Turkey'

These plant hunters and those who followed – John Tradescant and John Gerard in particular – had an interesting horticultural side effect. Because nonhardy varieties introduced needed protection from weather, glasshouse design was pushed forward at speed. By the 1750s this country excelled at protecting plants: glasshouses, hothouses, hotbeds, frames and pits, pineries and wineries were commonplace. Most of this innovative gardening took place in the kitchen gardens of great country estates, then scuppered by the Great War when these houses ran out of money. Almost 96 per cent of our traditional fruit and vegetable varieties disappeared over the past century.

British-Food-May25-04-590Raspberry ‘Malling Jewel’ (in punnet) and ‘Leo’

But a resurgence of interest in heritage products has meant that many of these lost kitchen gardens are being restored (notably by the National Trust), while producers and supermarkets are waking up to the idea that consumers want to grow – and eat – heritage fruit and veg.

As Toby Musgrave writes in his introduction: ‘For me, planting and growing a small bit of history is every bit as rewarding as nurturing harvesting and eating it…’

Heritage Fruits & Vegetables by Toby Musgrave, with photography by Clay Perry (Thames and Hudson, £38).

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