On the heritage trail: traditional varieties rouse consumer and culinary interest
Traditional growing methods and historical links are powerful marketing tools for Yorkshire rhubarb

On the heritage trail: traditional varieties rouse consumer and culinary interest

Angela Youngman
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In a competitive marketplace, produce that offers something different or stands out in some way tends to catch attention. Heritage produce is one such niche – and is now a perennial trend affecting all types of produce from tomatoes to apples and potatoes 

Consumers and chefs alike are proving to be fascinated by the concept of heritage produce regarding it as important, not just for its history, but for the sense of flavour, texture, colour and associations with classical cuisine that it conjures up. They share an increasing desire to discover the history of specific produce and where varieties originate. People want to learn the stories behind vegetables and edible plants, for example that of 16th century botanist John Gerard who declared that tomatoes were poisonous and not safe to eat.

Marketing heritage 

Heritage is often used in marketing traditional produce. The growing of forced rhubarb has a long history in the Leeds-Wakefield area. By focusing on these historic links and methods of cultivation, sales have been increased substantially through tourism. Thousands of people visit the area, just to attend the annual Rhubarb Festival. A similar situation exists in Southwell, where the Bramley Apple Festival attracts consumers from as far afield as Japan. While Stephanie Stubbs, marketing director of Edinburgh catering and events company Hickory Food points out: “Heritage is hugely important in Scotland. Clients are looking for a Scottish experience and we are always looking to find creative and innovative foods that have a heritage appeal.”

Heritage produce - presentation at the Wakefield rhubarb festival
Thousands attend the Rhubarb Festival in Yorkshire every year

In 2017, heritage will form a key component within government plans to promote British food abroad and at home by setting up a Great British Food Unit.

Yet heritage produce is more than just history. 

Heritage or speciality?

James Seymour from speciality salads and micro-leaf grower Westlands says: “Heritage is something of a misconception as it is very difficult to get truly heritage tomato varieties because genetics change over the years. We tend to talk about speciality tomatoes, and looking for eating characteristics that people associate with older style tomatoes. This is a popular, long-term trend and is going to last. Over the past few years, it has really taken off.”

Three years ago, Westlands began a new venture with Buckland Garden Nursery in which they set out to offer top of the range speciality produce to the London market and food processors. “These are more unusual tomatoes, with different colours as well as striped tomatoes and pear shaped tomatoes,” says Seymour. “We sell them in a mixed box, with different varieties mixed together. The colours, visually, make them look different and the smell is different too, these are not conventional red tomatoes. Chefs want something different to add new interest to their cuisine. They are exploring ways of using them such as stuffing tomatoes and these heritage tomatoes are better for sauces. When cooking Italian style, chefs want authentic cultivars.” 

The concept of heritage crosses all produce sectors, including herbs. Classic varieties, many of which date back to mediaeval or earlier periods, remain extremely popular and sought after. The heritage element has great appeal because it is based on traditional usage. Consumers want to feel they are connecting with history, with the past. Produce names such as Bardsey Island Apple, Carlin Black Peas, Dittisham Ploughman Plum, Formby Asparagus, Good King Henry, Musselburgh Leeks and Lyth Valley Damsons are redolent of tradition and food heritage. Mentioning names such as these in recipes or on menus, instantly attracts attention. 

Potato experimentation

One company, Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes, has even made a business for itself out of the concept of heritage and tradition. Back in the 1990s owners Anthony and Lucy Carroll found themselves disillusioned with methods of potato farming. Having grown modern varieties for many years, they found that the emphasis was always on volume and shiny, easily peeled skins but not on flavour. They began to experiment. In 2000, they grew an acre of older varieties such as Arran Victory 1916, Red Duke of York 1942, Pink Fir Apple 1850 and Red King Edward 1916. The resultant harvest was successfully sold at a farmers’ market in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Demand has steadily grown, leading the company to produce increasing quantities of heritage potatoes including many little known varieties such as Linda 1974 from Germany, and Red Emmalie. Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes now supply countless chefs, caterers and consumers nationwide. Its long-term aim is simple: “To be recognised as the leading grower and supplier of Heritage Potatoes in the UK.” 

Traditional trees 

Interest in heritage is not limited to salad and vegetables lines either. The Heritage Fruit Tree Company aims to revive interest in traditional varieties of apple and other tree fruits, many of which are endangered. “People like nostalgia,” the company’s Andrew Howard explains. “Their perceptions of value are much higher for older varieties and heritage fruit-tree varieties are very popular with smaller growers. Big commercial growers are interested too – but for the gene bank. Heritage sells and attracts a lot of interest. When I go to a food fair and have 180 varieties of heritage fruit on display – all varieties that were developed during the golden age of fruit growing prior to 1950, it immediately arouses attention and interest among everyone present.” 

Heritage in the kitchen

Dev Biswal, head chef at The Ambrette restaurants in Kent and East Sussex says: “For me, heritage is about amazing colours, textures and flavours and the difference that all three make on the work I do in the kitchen. Some of the older melon, pumpkin, squash and tomato varieties all look amazing, and because they’ve not been bred for transporting long distances like mass-produced vegetables, heritage varieties often have skin that’s softer and tastier. From a chef’s point of view, this not only makes them easier to work with, but you can do so much more with them. 

“When it comes to flavour, nothing’s more exciting to me right now than edible flowers. Heritage nasturtiums are a great example of this, such as Indian cress, with its spicy, peppery flavour, bold green leaves and bright crimson flowers, but there are so many vibrant ones to choose from.”

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