Journey to discover forgotten vegetables

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Historians claim that our European ancestors used about 1,200 plant species in Europe to feed themselves. Today the number has been reduced to a few dozen or so: even the most comprehensive catalogues contain about sixty species and varieties of vegetables, and at most around twenty varieties of fruit.

The subject is gaining more and more interest, especially in the haute cuisine world, in line with the culinary “rediscovery” trend of recent years.

The adjective “ancient” generally refers to the species or varieties of vegetables that were widespread in the past and which, today, for whatever reason, have been “forgotten” by conventional agriculture and the mass distribution market.

This is why the two terms “ancient vegetables” and “forgotten vegetables” have become almost synonymous in practice.

In common use, reference is often made to a real world of vegetables that only in very rare cases can be ancient and forgotten, but in most cases, it refers to unusual and rare vegetables.

Let’s see some examples below.

 

Lost in time
Some vegetables have been forgotten over the centuries. Perhaps the most striking example of all is skirret, a herbaceous plant of the Umbelliferae family with white flowers, and with roots endowed with emollient and diuretic properties, which are also edible. It was present on all royal meal tables during the Renaissance and was much loved by Louis XIV, who demanded it was always present in the gardens of Versailles. Nowadays, it is practically unobtainable.

Very similar to skirret, the parsnip is also an excellent example of one of the difficulties encountered in defining what forgotten vegetables are, namely the great spatial diversity of the spread of ancient vegetables. In English-speaking countries, parsnips have never disappeared from meal tables. On the contrary, they have always been and remain a very widespread vegetable like any other. Therefore, only in Italy can we talk about parsnips as an ancient and forgotten vegetable, whereas in the USA, it is clearly very different. At most, parsnips can be classified as an ancient vegetable, because they have been eaten since time immemorial, without ever being forgotten.

 

A contemporary twist over time
Some very old varieties of a vegetable may exist, whereas others are very recent, if not so very new. For example, most of the carrots we buy at the supermarket are varieties that are the result of crossbreeds obtained from food research in recent years only. For example, the Küttingen white carrot is a variety that has been grown since time immemorial, probably as far back as the Middle Ages. So only the latter variety is included in the realm of ancient and forgotten vegetables, certainly not all “common” orange carrots!

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