x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

1001 Arabian bites: Flavours of the past

Why everyone should taste heritage and heirloom foods.

A selection of multi-coloured heirloom tomatoes.
A selection of multi-coloured heirloom tomatoes.

Lipstick, Carmen, Cobra. To you it may look like the first line in a haiku, three alter egos in a women's wrestling league, or a snake charmer's to-do list, but they are also the names of heirloom tomato cultivars. And though the terms imply a dated curiosity reminiscent of old curios now Victorian with fust, dust and must, heirloom and heritage items aren't just your grandmother's unwanted artefacts any more.

Heirloom is the pedigree used to describe edible, open-pollinated, non-hybrid plant varieties that have been grown throughout human history and are genetically, visually and gastronomically distinct from commercial varieties. Heritage, on the other hand, generally refers to traditional breeds of animals that were marginalised by the advent of industrial agriculture. To really grasp the sensitivity of the issues surrounding heirloom and heritage varietals, it helps to remember that we've lost a significant proportion of the genetic diversity in our food supply over the past 100 years.

Debates rage on about the perceived elitism of organisations such as Slow Food, and associated schemes such as The Ark of Taste, which aims to document, describe and share flavours both endangered and extinct. Raising rare breeds and varietals, then eating them, is a huge part of what is keeping their endangered legacies alive, owing to their unique genetic blueprints. In defending agronomy, genetic diversity and common sense, it appears that the demand for heirloom and heritage foods is essential to protecting our food systems and our food supply. If we only raise a few breeds of animals or grow a few kinds of crops, and a disease comes along to blow it all away, we won't have much left.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables tend toward the hulking, the gnarly and the ugly. Last summer, my favourite vendor at a US farmer's market was very excited about his heirloom albino eggplants. He found himself alone in this excitement; nobody else was interested in the slender, ghostly grey sylphs. My farmer friend, confident that hedonism would prevail, didn't seem too concerned. He cited a similar public response to his wonderful heirloom Cherokee tomatoes - mottled, plummy masterpieces - when they first hit the market stalls. And he was right; the albino eggplants began flying out of his stall days after two local chefs were bold enough to feature dishes made with it as daily specials. The heirloom eggplant's delicate sweetness and velvety texture had gathered a small cult following. The first turkey I ever cooked, a muscular heritage Bourbon Red bird, had me convinced it would be inedible as I slid its bronzed and shrunken body from a hot oven a few Thanksgivings ago. In the US, 99 per cent of all turkeys raised are Broad Breasted Whites, a turkey breed that was developed in order to provide consumers with meatier breasts. I chose a heritage bird so that I could taste turkey that had lived freely and been spared antibiotics, but a lifetime of Butterball frozen birds can riddle the unconscious mind with standards and expectations about how turkey should look, feel and taste - even if those standards and expectations have nothing at all to do with a real, honest-to-goodness, free-ranging, antibiotic-free, hormone-free roast turkey.

Appearances aside, if there's one thing that gives heritage breeds and heirloom fruits and vegetables the leg-up in sustainable farming, it's the fact that they unequivocally taste better. Like the token awkward wallflower in the film whose secret dancing talents or beautiful figure is concealed beneath a dowdy exterior, there's something about authenticity that is downright sensuous, and the immediacy of good, seasonal heirloom produce is irresistible. You can argue ethics, but pleasure is a more effective motivator. The problem isn't getting people to agree on what makes juicy ripe tomatoes, albeit funny-looking ones, better than their anaemic-looking, grainy, round, hard counterparts, but rather how to get those tomatoes into everyone's mouths.

Consumers have never been more conscious about their food sources. Dining out, more so than eating at home, is very much about the whole gestalt: the integrity of the experience in its entirety. Mezlai at the Emirates Palace hotel is the newest and most interesting restaurant concept to hit the Emirati dining circuit in recent memory, serving traditional Emirati cuisine in a fine-dining environment.

One of the dishes is a "slow-roasted shoulder of UAE-raised lamb" with herbs, hand-blended spices, and natural jus, thus proving that when there isn't access to heritage meats or heirloom veggies, there are other ways of loading a little proverbial heritage on to the plate - and we have to work with what's available until more choices appear. In September of this year, the international art auction house Sotheby's will be holding a reception and subsequently auctioning off heirloom produce as part of a fundraising benefit to support sustainable agriculture organisations. Treating produce as jewels or art lends it a heightened preciosity that resuscitates the image of a heritage chest of weighted heirlooms and perpetuates the widespread and unfortunate perception of sustainable food as an inaccessible concept. We don't need to polarise our global food system any further.