December 3rd, 2021 - (Source © lid.ch) - Many of the root vegetables that were once cultivated in Switzerland have been forgotten in the course of mechanization. However, seed expert Robert Zollinger is convinced that oat roots, Rapunzel or Butzenklette have many exciting flavors, colors and shapes ready to be rediscovered.
By David Eppenberger
Many people know the common evening primrose from train rides, because the plant with its large yellow flowers likes to grow in the gravel along the tracks. That is why it is also known as the "railway plant". Only die-hard wild vegetable fans know that, contrary to popular rumor, it is not poisonous, but on the contrary edible and healthy. In the 18th century it was popular in cottage gardens because of its fleshy taproot. If this is dampened a little, it develops a white-reddish color pattern, which is why it is also referred to as "ham root" in horticultural literature. But hardly anyone uses them in the kitchen these days. It is similar with other traditional root vegetables that have been forgotten. Or who knows Butzenklette, Rapunzel, Tuberpea, common donkey thistle, Spanish golden thistle or oat root? All of them are root vegetables that were once cultivated in Switzerland but are no longer found in today's vegetable assortment.
The continuing loss of varieties and species in agriculture is a fact. "Six apple varieties make up 80 percent of the area under cultivation in Switzerland today," explains Christina Kägi from the Federal Office for Agriculture. In Switzerland, however, there are over 3,000 other types of fruit that no longer meet today's market demands, but are still of great value. As one of the coordinators of the National Action Plan for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture ( NAP-PGREL ), Christina Kägi works to ensure that this genetic and culinary treasure is not lost. Since 1999, over 600 projects to preserve the diversity of cultivated plants in Switzerland have been carried out in this context. In future, breeding will benefit from the seeds stored in the National Genebank in Changins, among others. Old native varieties of grain contain genetic material, such as black rust resistance in barley, which can be used for use in modern new breeds. Most of the projects so far have mainly focused on the conservation of seeds from old types of grain, vegetables or fruit. “You looked at what was there and made sure that it wasn't lost,” explains Christina Kägi. In the last five years, however, more land use projects have been carried out with the aim of cultivating rare agricultural crops and making them fit for cultivation again. When it comes to vegetables in particular, there are many types that are not suitable for mechanization, but still stand out from the standard in culinary terms.
Christina Kägi from the Federal Office for Agriculture and Robert Zollinger from Hortiplus want to bring traditional roots back into gardens and kitchens. (ep)
Robert Zollinger has been committed to preserving traditional cultivated plants all his professional life. Together with his wife, he once set up the Zollinger organic seed nursery in Les Evouettes, which he passed on to his sons four years ago. He has already carried out several viewing and conservation projects within the framework of the NAP-PGREL. In the current project with traditional roots, he and his company Hortiplus Zollinger grew 65 different varieties of seven species on the outskirts of Zurich this year (see box). The FOAG supported the project financially, and the City of Zurich provided the land in the Grünhölzli community garden. Still praised in the older garden literature, the examined root vegetables have now disappeared from the minds of gardeners, explains Robert Zollinger. There are also understandable reasons for this: the ancient types of vegetables such as Rapunzel, Bützchen or oat root are the opposite of today's uniform carrots, which are trimmed for technical cultivation, which must meet the strict quality requirements of the buyers. The traditional roots, on the other hand, grow very differentlyme: multi-legged, fat or thin, long or short. In large-scale professional vegetable gardening, their cultivation is much too time-consuming and therefore uneconomical. In the strictly timed vegetable market, nobody has time to dig meters deep for roots that may then hardly produce any yield. Robert Zollinger sees a revival of the kitchen garden tradition and an increasing interest in tasty vegetables. "The roots have exciting aromas, colors and shapes, which could not only be of interest for upscale gourmet cuisine."
Robert Zollinger with an evening primrose that bloomed in the first year and accordingly had sparse roots. (ep)
Sourcing usable seeds as a challenge
It was difficult, however, to find enough and suitable seeds from the seven root types intended for inspection, explains seed expert Robert Zollinger. On the one hand, the seeds, some of which were only dust-sized, came from private individuals who followed calls in magazines. On the other hand, they were stored in the National Genebank in Changins. In addition, Robert Zollinger occasionally searches for candidates on his own at possible locations. He knew from literature, for example, that tuber peas still grow along grain fields in the Leuk region. When he arrived on a tour of the site a few years ago, however, the field had already been harvested. But he still found what he was looking for because the wild boars had rummaged through the ground for the nodules. Zollinger smiles: “Wild boars just know what's good”.
Cooked evening primrose roots could become an issue again in top gastronomy. (ep)
But available seeds alone do not mean that they are suitable for cultivation. “It was easy to see that the varieties are negligible in terms of breeding,” he explains. For example, the seeds often grow unevenly. The first thing to do with these cultivation experiments is to use the plants that have grown to judge which varieties are actually suitable for propagation. Agronomic and culinary criteria are particularly weighted. If it blooms yellow and purple in the first year in the Grünhölzli, then it is nice to see for the layman. For growers Zollinger, however, it is clear that the usually biennial root vegetables should only bloom in the second year, because the roots form mainly in the first year. Such varieties that bloom in the first year are therefore rated negatively in the selection. Ultimately, only those varieties are increased that were able to assert themselves in the complex screening and assessment process. At the end of the day, the seeds should be available in stores with varieties that are suitable for everyday use. Because the goal remains that the gnarled root vegetables find their way back to the kitchen gardens and kitchens. Zollinger is confident here: "The first tastings with top chefs have already been very successful."
The seven traditional root vegetables spotted in the project:
Rapunzel, Rapunzel Bellflower (Campanula rapunculus): 30 to 100 cm high, herbaceous perennial plant. Fleshy, thickened and tasty root. Preparation like celery or beetroot. Raw root slices together with leaves decorated with flowers in lettuce. Roots and leaves contain essential valerian oil, which has a calming effect on the stomach and promotes sleep. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Tuberous pea (Lathyrus tuberosus): flowers, young shoots, flower buds and roots (tubers) are (cooked) edible. In the past, perfume was made from the flowers. The seeds are poisonous and lead to symptoms of poisoning after consumption. Contain minerals, vitamins and valuable amino acids. Form nodules that can be cooked like potatoes. Roots to a depth of 70 cm and forms runners with tubers. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Ham root, common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis): Biennial herbaceous plant up to 2 meters high. Young leaves can be used for lettuce, the flowers for decoration. When cooked, the taste is somewhere between Swiss chard and spinach. In the first year of standing, taproot is dug up in autumn and cooked like carrots. Hibernates as a rosette and blooms in the second year. Oil that contains omega-6 fatty acids and linoleic acid is also obtained from capsules (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Common donkey thistle (Onopordum acanthium): The root is edible when cooked. Biennial plant with prickly leaves forms a rosette in the first year and grows to a height of 3 meters in the second year. The taproot extends deep into the ground and is cooked like salsify. Flower bases are comparable to artichoke hearts. Contains bitter substances, flavone glycosides and tannins. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Spanish golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus): the root can be cooked as a vegetable and the young leaves can be used like spinach. The plant is also edible. Like other leafy green vegetables like Swiss chard or spinach, they contain many vitamins for strengthening the immune system. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Oat root (Tragopogon porrifolius) Used in the kitchen as a root vegetable, for example in soups, leaves are also used in salads. Tap roots are up to 30 cm long. The herbaceous plant reaches a height of up to 120 cm. Contains insulin and is therefore very digestible for people with diabetes and also gluten-free. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
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