Pink potatoes. Purple potatoes. Potatoes the colour of softly whipped cream. Potatoes that make you want to break into a Dr. Seuss poem. What tops green eggs and ham? Purple mash and pink fries? No wonder M.J. Mow is so enamoured with his potatoes.
Mow's been declared a living legend by the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. As he excitedly juggles potatoes, explaining their myriad benefits, it becomes apparent why. We're in Prahan market, a gourmet food destination that focuses on fresh, local and ethical produce, and Mow is explaining the importance of supporting diversity. He is an old fashioned salesman: chatting with customers, helping them make decisions. Potato salad? Try a tri-colour version, using the royal purple Congo with juicy pink Fir Apples and a waxy kipflers. Not convinced? He'll whip out butter and salt, then pop a potato in the microwave so you can decide for yourself.
His customers understand a potato is not just a potato. “This is the Belliat. It has 50 per cent less carbohydrates, soft flesh and is rich in vitamin C, B6 and potassium,” he says. “And this is the Nicola, it has a low GI, and is great for boiling, roasting and salads.” His current favourite however seems to be the brazenly purple Congo, related to the sweet potato. And the pink Fir Apples, “great with lamb and roasts.”
Mow's Chinese grandfather started this stall in 1891 selling fruits and vegetables. Mow's been in the business for 40 years, specializing in potatoes as customers tentatively opened up to new varieties. Today he stocks between 40 to 50 varieties, depending on the season. And although he never set out to be a knight in shining armour, he's become a powerful catalyst, convincing people of the importance of heirloom varieties, seed savers and sustainable agriculture.
Damian Pike, mushroom specialist is another living legend just a few stalls away. He's obsessed with mushrooms, stocking a jaw dropping collection from across Australia. (According to legend, he even has a tattoo of a morel mushroom on his upper arm.) We browse through his boxes of edible flowers. And meet the black devil: a sweet micro carrot.
When it comes to diversity, Heronswood in the Mornington Peninsula is the ideal place for research. Especially because you can browse catalogues over buttery scones with dollops of sweet whipped cream in the St. Erth Café, set in a garden busy with flowers and bees. This is the home of The Diggers Club, which has 72,000 members across Australia. And the massive grounds are a living catalogue of the club's heirloom fruits and vegetables.
As Talei Kenyon of the Diggers Club walks us through their chaotically coloured garden, she explains why it's important to source and protect plants that have been handed down unchanged from generation to generation. “Heirloom seeds are old varieties. They've not been altered by scientists to maximise yield, or be more profitable. The flavour of their fruits and vegetables is vibrant. The yield is perfect for home gardens.”
At Heronswood they experiment with traditional seeds from around the world. “We work with at least 3000 varieties. Look to places with similar climates, like North Africa, Turkey and the Mediterranean. And we encourage people to grow seeds and plants that do well in Australia.” She adds that seeds have always travelled. “Carrots discovered in Afghanistan were purple. They were taken to Holland, and as part of a political move, because of the ruling House of Orange, they were made orange. Flowers and plans have changed through history.”
However, the changes over the last couple of decades have been far more drastic than ever before. “The way we grow and buy food has changed. There's a mono culture. Produce is losing flavour. Fruits are bred to be the same size and colour. They lose their perfume.”
Additionally unlike the traditional seeds, which have been passed on for hundreds of years, she says “Hybridised seeds can't be saved. They're designed to die so you're dependant on the seed merchant every year.” People around the world are now starting kitchen gardens to pass on the message. When they have no backyard space, in cities like New York and London, they use public spaces for ‘guerilla gardening', declared as a way of ‘fighting the filth with forks and flowers.'
Walking through Heronswood's garden, plucking juicy beans off the stem to enjoy their summery sweetness, and gently bruising leaves from herb hedges to scent the air with the aroma of lemon and thyme, it's easy to understand why the pro-diversity struggle is steadily gaining strength.