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I have a nerdish interest in the history of gardening, partly because I work as a garden trainee in an old garden and partly because I like both history and growing things. So I was delighted to find a second hand copy of Christopher Stocks' book "Forgotten Fruits" for sale in my local Oxfam bookshop. The books subtitle is "The story behind Britain's traditional fruit and vegetables", and that is more of less what the book is about. It is the sort of book I think you will either love or hate and this is the reason why..
WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT
The main title is slightly misleading as the book isn't just, or even mainly, about fruit, and I would not call the likes of strawberries and beetroot exactly forgotten types of food. The book instead lists traditional varieties of fruit and vegetables and describes the stories behind their discovery and when they came into general production. Even here the "forgotten" part of the title doesn't quite sit right - the varieties picked may be relatively old but they are not all forgotten in the sense of not grown anymore. For example Victoria plums, Cox apples and January King cabbages are available from just about every fruit/seed supplier around and I am sure are names recognised even by many of those who never "grow their own". I do understand the author's difficulty as he wishes to recommend varieties that may still be available to buy and the longer a variety had been in cultivation the more there is to actually say about it.
The chapters deal with one particular edible such as peas, or rhubarb. Then there is a handful of entries each dealing with one traditional variety and giving a few nuggets of information about it. In some cases we are told how the fruit/veg got its name such as which "Conference " it was that gave the famous pear it's moniker, in others how it was discovered - for example growing on a cottage roof [the Newton Wonder apple]. In some cases I found this information fascinating and even inspiring as it shows how many major discoveries have been made by chance by ordinary people and amateur growers. In other cases the debate about a type of onions origin, for example, tested even the patience even of this horticultural history fanatic. All too often an entry reads along the lines of "we do not know how this variety got it's name or when it was discovered but it was first sold commercially by x around 1890". Then it moves on which made me wonder why those varieties were chosen for inclusion at all.
THE GOOD POINTS
The kitchen garden I work in dates from the 18th century in the main and has Victorian parts to it too. The decision has been made to grow as many traditional varieties as possible and as a simple way for me to find out which ones can be regarded as historic, this book has been useful. I know many people have an interest in preserving so called heritage veg and they would likely find the book interesting in the same way. I can also imagine someone wanting to choose a genuinely local apple tree for example, could use this book as a starting point for research. There is a map at the back that shows which veg and fruit were developed in which area and most parts of the country have at least a few markers down. It isn't just a question of local pride as very often the reason that an apple tree grew well in a particular place is because it was particularly suited to the counties soil for example. What the book doesn't give is precise growing information - for example you will not find an apple tree's pollination group listed. If you read each entry through you will nevertheless find useful recommendations, for example of late flowering fruit trees which are more suited to frost prone areas, but the information won't jump out at you.
I like the fact the book has a balanced approach to growing edibles for their historic value. It describes some so beautifully as regards their flavour that it is hard to imagine anyone not wanting to grow them - champagne and nutmeg flavoured apples anyone? On the other hand, it will tell you if the reason a variety became less popular was because it proved to be less resistant to disease or less reliable in cropping than a then "new" variety.
The book is illustrated with a mixture of small black and white drawings and colour photographs. The drawings look like those from Victorian nursery catalogues of which I am lucky enough to own a treasured few. They are charming, even if you would be hard pressed to use them to tell one type of carrot from another! The photos are grouped in the centre of the book and show a mixture of the fruit and vegetables themselves, portraits of Victorian nurserymen and old advertising images. An eclectic mix and quite interesting to flick through.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE BOOK?
The blurb on my paperback edition describes the book as "enthralling" which I think may be optimistic for the casual reader. If you do not care whether the Victoria plum is originally from Sussex or France, and debate on whether the Manchester Market turnip may or not have descended from Snowball sends you to sleep, steer well clear of this book. For a fruit and vegetable gardener very interested in the history of their produce, this is an interesting read that makes a change from practical "how to" guides. I think it could have done with a little further editing to avoid entries such as the one for the Champion Purple Top turnip which consists of a few lines telling us that it was popular in the 19th century and not much else. I would also have chosen a different title but I still enjoyed the book and I will re-read it.
New paperback copies are currently £6.74 on Amazon, the cover price being £9.99. The hardback does not seem to be available new anymore but there are a number of used copies available too. I think this book was a popular gift when it first came out as I have seen it surprisingly often in second hand book shops since buying my copy so it may be worth keeping an eye out in one of those if you are interested.
[This review is also on Ciao under the same user name.]