“What is this?” a lady asked a market vendor. A raspberry, was the slightly exasperated response the woman received, but not at all what she had hope for. She was interested in the particular variety of raspberry for sale. Perhaps this woman at the Portland Sunday farmers market is indicative of a growing awareness of the diversity within our food system. However, the fact remains that we have been trained to think of foods as apples, oranges, beans, lettuce, garlic…often done without recognizing that there may be tens, hundreds, even thousands of varieties of each.
If I asked you what is your favorite fruit, how would you respond? Would you tell me that you love Sea Breeze strawberries? Or Red Haven peaches? Or Lapin cherries? Or Brown Turkey figs? Well, most people would just say apples or pears, plums or bananas. But the multitude of playful, and sometimes comic or witty, names opens a whole new world of market produce fun. I’ve sold Music garlic and Spartan apples, sautéed some Red Russian kale, and enjoyed a Mortgage Raiser tomato and Rattlesnake beans.
But there is more to agro-biodiversity than fancy names. From an evolutionary perspective, our agrarian ancestors had the right idea. Cultivate crops suited to different climates, available at various times during the year, resistant to certain pests. For example, usually you will see strawberries in June and July, and then they are done. But an ever-bearing variety will actually produce in May, June, August, and September, albeit smaller fruit spread out over the seasons. Ultimately, diversity builds resilience in the agro-ecosystem and tempers what would otherwise be very lean years. It’s our insurance policy; eggs spread out over multiple baskets; a diversified portfolio; you get the picture.
And then there is taste. When we are talking food, let us never forget taste. Fruits demonstrate the beauty of diversity very well, so let’s examine my love affair with cherries. Sadly, this fruit is not so prevalent on the east coast (and the season ended nearly two months ago), but I had a run-in with these pitted wonders last weekend in Portland. I am sure you know the Bing variety – dark purple, juicy, deep – and you may be familiar with the Rainiers – tie-dyed yellow and pink, with a light summer flavor. But have you heard of Lapins (maybe…)? Or the Staccato? Or Tulare? Each has its own distinct flavor profile, not to mention staggered growing seasons and ideal weather/soil conditions. What I didn’t realize until my east coast move is that those are just the sweet cherries; sour cherries seem to be big around here and have there own extended family tree.
So, here’s a challenge: as fall approaches swear off your typical fuji or gala apples that everyone knows, and seek out their interesting cousins. If you are still basking in end-of-summer fruit bounty, have a blind peach or tomato tasting. Oftentimes farmers will advertise the varieties they grow, but if they don’t, just ask!