TASTE OF THE PAST
Susan Gough Henly savours the fruit of heirloom crops from a Tennessee country garden
EVERYTHING old is new again. As consumers seek alternatives to modern, homogenised hybrid vegetables bred for shelf life and machine harvesting (everything except honest flavour), places such as the multiaward-winning Relais & Chateaux property Blackberry Farm in western Tennessee in the US are bringing the past back to life.
In 1994 Sam Beall converted his family estate on 1700 undulating green hectares in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains into a country inn with all the trappings, including great food and wine. Then he set about nurturing the best elements of country life, creating heirloom vegetable and flower gardens, building a herd of rich cream-producing East Friesian sheep, constructing houses for the chickens and planting apple orchards.
This month an old-fashioned farmstead will open with a creamery, cheese caves, jammery and wine cellar, allowing Beall to immerse his guests in ‘‘ a lifestyle with real food in the way it was meant to be consumed: organic, seasonal and, most important, local’’.
To this end, master gardener John Coykendall and garden manager Jeff Ross have created a 1.5ha garden overflowing with heirloom beans, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, garlic, onion, squash and beets, as well as herbs and flowers that attract insects away from the vegies.
It is a colourful guidebook to old-fashioned vegetables and an artist’s palette for the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.
‘‘ Artists don’t create masterpieces with mere house paint,’’ Coykendall says. ‘‘ All the heirlooms have been bred first and foremost for flavour. We have over 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes alone, nothing like the plastic-tasting ones at the supermarket.’’
Coykendall talks proudly about the garden as he sits in his rocker in his neat-as-a-pin farm shed, where piles of distinctively coloured beans are laid neatly on the table alongside jam-jar posies of cottage garden flowers. ‘‘ Beans were the first things the settlers learned from the Cherokee Indians,’’ he says.
The Cherokee October beans, for instance, have been grown by the same Tennessee family since 1780. And the washday field pea was named for its short cooking time. Washing laundry by hand used to take all day and this pea would cook in about a half-hour, the time it took to bake cornbread.
Coykendall says whenever he gets a seed from a family, he tries to get the whole story at the same time.
‘‘ I write it all down in a memory bank; things like the history of the family who grew the seed, how and where it was grown, and how it was eaten,’’ he says. ‘‘ Otherwise the part it played in the local culture will be lost.’’
Coykendall and Ross regularly sit with guests at tables under the trees for garden dinners and tell stories about the produce as each course, bursting with fresh flavours, is served.
Blackberry Farm still practises the three sisters Cherokee method of intercropping corn, pole beans and squash (the ‘‘ three sisters’’), an effective organic farming method. The cornstalks support the bean vines, the beans fix nitrogen into the soil, fertilising the corn, and the squash vines shade the corn roots, trapping moisture and keeping weeds to a minimum.
The late-afternoon sunshine of early summer casts a golden glow over the carefully tended garden beds. Rows of ruffled heirloom lettuces, in every hue of green and red, are each neatly marked: prize head, deer tongue, grandpa admires, chicken lettuce, oak leaf, rossimo, and Austrian Forellenschluss with green leaves and red speckles resembling the markings on a trout. The restaurant serves this lettuce with local trout dishes.
The tomatoes offer perhaps the most diversity. Hungarian ox heart can each weigh up to 1kg and have a rich, red-wine flavour. The persimmon-shaped pineapple tomato, deep yellow with a flush of pink on the bottom, is juicy and full of flavour.
The acidic Hellfrucht, with tiny, light pink fruit, is a favourite for eating straight off the vine. But it is the fuzzy garden peach tomato, which has small yellow fruit with a flush of peach colour on top, which consistently wins in the tomato tastings Coykendall and Ross hold at the shed.
We are joined by sous chef Adam Cooke, who has come to collect herbs for the evening meal. Ross hands him some white flower buds and spiralling stems or scapes of Russian hardneck red garlic with the suggestion that the kitchen saute them in butter as a tasty side dish.
Squash is often thought of as a distinctively American vegetable and indeed the Tennessee sweet potato pumpkin was first grown in the 1600s. This small, tan, oblong pumpkin has sweet orange flesh.
The curved-neck cushaw squash, white with green stripes, came from the Caribbean in the 1700s. Today, cushaw pie is an Appalachian specialty.
Blackberry Farm even grows Australian butter squash and Queensland blue pumpkin, as well as New Zealand spinach or tetragonia, which is high in vitamin C.
First harvested by Maori, tetragonia was brought back to England in pickled form by James Cook to fight scurvy on the voyage. It makes a great spinach substitute in hot weather in the lush green landscape beneath Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.
While the focus may be local, organic and seasonal, growers of heirloom vegetables roam far and wide in their search for those pure flavours from the past that have survived into the homogenised present.
THE Digger’s Club, based at the Heronswood Garden in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, is Australia’s premier distributor of heirloom seeds for vegetables and flowers. More: www.diggers.com.au. It is the sole Australian importer of American heirloom seeds, which are distributed by Seed Savers. More: www.seedsavers.com.
Growing concern: Jeff Ross, left, sharing produce with Blackberry Farm’s sous chef Adam Cooke; heirloom lettuces, top right; heirloom beans, bottom right