Travelling in time and space with the Oaxacan Jewel
Albenga Oxheart tomato, Austrian Oil Seed pumpkin, Florence Long-Ribbed zucchini, Genovese giant basil, Lebanese cucumber, Oaxacan Jewel tomato, Tokyo Black eggplant – a cook’s tour of the world in vegetable plants.
At this time of year I pot up a lot of vegetable plants I have grown from seed, for planting out in my own garden at Labour Weekend, or selling at the Orton Bradley Park Spring Fair. I try out new varieties every year, with an emphasis on ones that are high in flavour, colour and nutrition (the three are usually linked). These are the ones that can’t be bought in the supermarkets which sell only fast-growing, high-yield varieties – and to hell with nutrition and taste.
A lot of these veges are heirloom or heritage varieties – plants that were first bred centuries ago. Their names often reflect their ancestry and their source of origin. So potting up seedlings can be a way of travelling in time and space if one thinks about when and where these plants were first bred, who created them, and how they got to New Zealand. The other day I was potting up the tomato Oaxacan Jewel. The first thought that arises, of course, is “How do you pronounce Oaxacan?” (Answer: Wa-HA-kan.) Next question: “What does it mean?” Answer: “From Oaxaca.” “Where is Oaxaca?” In Mexico – it is one of its southern-most states. “Why is it called Oaxaca?” It is named after a native tree that grows around the capital of the state. “What’s the tomato connection?” Oaxaca is a fantastic place for anyone interested in unique plants, animals, and human cultures, being richly diverse in all three. Way back when (maybe as far back as 700 A.D.) the people who lived in what is modern-day Mexico started breeding the indigenous South American tomato plants (which were probably only cherry tomato sized) into the big fat types we know today. One of the treasures taken back to Europe by the 16th century Spanish invaders was the tomato (the very name tomato comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs).
It took a while for the tomato to catch on in Europe, but eventually it became Italy’s national vegetable and essential to many dishes. So when I moved on to potting up Albenga Oxheart tomatoes and wondered where Albenga was, I guessed it was somewhere in Italy. The northwest corner, as it turns out, where the attractive and now ancient town was founded by the Ligures tribe in the 4th century B.C. With so many old places to go and old cultures to learn about, there’s never a dull moment in my potting shed! Plus it feels so good to be keeping a global culture that spans millennia – vege culture – alive and flourishing in quite a different time and place.