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  • Martyn Cox

secret history of vegetables

More scintillating and saucy than a soap opera!  Who could have thought that the history of vegetables could be so enticing and exotic?  But then, Martyn is a good storyteller!


Our speaker, Martyn Cox, has been gardening since he was a boy, he is an author of several books on gardening and a garden journalist for the Mail on Sunday, Gardeners World and several other publications with over 16 years experience in Freelance writing. Martyn likes to look into the history and background of plants and thereby allows us to view them in a far different and exciting way.


We started with;

The Amorous Asparagus – Native to the Mediterranean and cultivated over 1000’s of years. A Greek classic shows Asparagus as a saviour to a Greek Goddess hunted by soldiers. The Romans equally loved Asparagus with Augustus sending a fleet of ships to bring Asparagus to Rome. There is even a mosaic from 350BC depicting bundles of Asparagus which look no different than the bundles we see in our supermarkets today.  It’s also known as an aphrodisiac. The Herbalist writer John Gerrard confirmed it “increased seed and brings out lust”, in 16th Century France the bridegroom was given Asparagus for obvious reasons....There is also white Asparagus, which is the same as green, but grown in the dark and has a slightly different flavour and way of cooking.


We then moved on to:

Puzzling Peas – also native to the Mediterranean and cultivated for a millennia. In Egypt they were the food of the Gods and even found in Tutankhamun's tomb. In 1858 people were conned into buying “mummy pea seeds” supposedly from Egyptian tombs, which were much tastier than your normal pea!!


Next we met:

The Sacred Beetroot – its origins derive from wild seabeet native to Europe and Africa. It took years of cultivation to turn it into the beetroot we know today. The ancients Greeks put it into their Temple to Apollo. There has also been found a mural of beetroot in a Roman brothel! In the UK it only became popular in the 19th century with many varieties, one of Martyn's favourite is beetroot Chioggia which was bred in Venice in the 1840’s and has red and white circles when cut into and can be eaten raw. The Australians are the biggest consumer of beetroot where a beetroot burger can be purchased at McDonalds!


Our next vegetable is:

The Jerusalem Artichoke which originates from North America and is a member of the sunflower family.  The Native north American Indians cultivated it. The Frenchman, Samuel De Champlain brought them to Europe and Italy, and their name “Jerusalem” most likely stems from the Italian name for sunflower “girasole” and has nothing to do with the Middle East. Our friend the herbalist, John Gerrard, found them disgusting “stinky wind only fit for pigs, and nicknamed them “fartichokes”.


We moved quickly on to;

The Terrific Tomato – originating from south and central America and native to the Aztecs and Mayans, the Spanish Conquistadors brought them to Europe. John Gerrard, the herbalist, did NOT like them “Dank and stinking and poisonous” was how he saw them. Although they are of the same family as Henbane and Deadly Nightshade, they are not poisonous. The French called them the Apple of Love, and thanks to the Victorians we have many heritage varieties still surviving today. In Spain they have a festival in celebration of the tomato, La Tomatina, where over 20,000 people have fun throwing tomatoes at each other!


Next we moved onto a Herb:

Brilliant Basil – It actually originates from India where it’s called the Tulsi Plant and is sacred to Hindus.  All basil is derived from the holy Tulsi plant. Our friend Mr Gerrard the Herbalist didn’t approve of this one either, being suspicious of all its flavour and aroma! He thought if you spit it out worms would appear!

Although Basil originates from India the Italians have made it their own through Pesto Sauce, made from Tigullio Basil grown as a crop in Liguria. Martyn gave us a hint of growing Basil, plant one seedling per pot and keep giving it a bigger pot as it grows, but keep pruning the top to get a big bushy plant and always water basil in the morning, not at night.


We moved back to vegetables with:

Broad Beans – originating in the Middle East and cultivated since 6000BC.  The Ancient Greek, Pythagoras, hated them and went so far as to ban them. The Egyptians equally disliked them and found them fit only for slaves. However, the Romans loved them and they were at the heart of Roman democracy being used to count the votes in the senate, black for yes, white for no, hence “Bean Counter”. The Italians and Mediterraneans also loved them, but should you eat to many you can get anaemia. Hanibal Lector enjoyed eating his with Chianti!


Our next veg is:

Pungent Garlic – one of those you either love or hate! In Egypt clay models of garlic have been found from 3200BC. The Romans brought garlic to Britain where it was a culinary staple until the 16th Century, when the Puritans came along and hated it so much they banned it. It stayed out of our diet until the end of the WWII, when, with immigrants from all parts of the world came here and brought it back into favour.


Following on we have:

The Pungent Onion – an ancient crop very popular in ancient Greece where athletes, who performed naked, would drink its juice and smear it onto their bodies!  The Ancient Egyptians also regarded it as sacred and cultivated it over 5000 years. It is found in tombs in eye sockets, armpits and other orifices of the dead. The peeling layers of the onion symbolised eternal life.


Our final vegetable was:

The Crazy Carrots – they originated from the wild carrot root and are native to Afghanistan. It took thousands of years to make them into edible plants and originally were dark colours, black, purple or dark red.  A Roman mural found in a tavern shows the carrot as we know it today. The emperor Caligula was a carrot fanatic. He considered it an aphrodisiac, yep, yet another one, and held feasts where every dish was made of carrots and then he hoped an orgy would follow!

In the 16th Century the Dutch developed the orange carrot that we know today, the Chantenay Carrot, nothing to do with their Royal colours. 


In Britain carrots were brought over from Holland in the 16th Century and were popularised during WWII when they were used as a propaganda tool; Carrots will make you see better in the dark during black outs and help our pilots see the Germans better so they can shoot them down! They were also popularised during rationing, the Ministry of Food put out a poster of “Doctor Carrot” the children's friend. Instead of an ice lolly you could have a carrot lolly! What child could resist that!


And so, Martyn brought us to the end of our slightly lascivious and lecherous journey into the history of vegetables with one last thought: Don’t forget to eat your Greens!!!

Dawne Dunton


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