Tuesday, 25 March 2008

AN HEIRLOOM IN MY HANDS

This afternoon I went to visit an Italian man, with sketchy details that I had from Deb about some seeds to collect...Here is the story.... This man, Silvio, 78, has been growing these same cucumbers for over 30 years and they have a story - many stories - of their own which I will recount in a moment. Recently he has been looking for some people to entrust these seeds to because he has been ill and his family are just not interested in some old, Italian cucumber seeds. So I have them now, to share and grow and keep pure forever.

This is a huge responsibility because these seeds, as far as he and his sister-in-law, Maria (88), know were only ever grown by her family, near a place called Bari, in southern Italy. Silvio's wife died some 20 years ago but was the first of her family to come out to Australia as Silvio's wife, 50 years ago. One by one her brothers came out to Australia until there was only Maria and her father, left in Bari. Eventually they came out too and the seeds were left behind and grown on by other relatives in the same area. One day some of these relatives came out to visit the family in Australia and brought some of the cucumber seeds. Here the story becomes a bit of a secret but Silvio told me in confidence.....Anyway since then he has been growing them for his wife's family, every year, without fail. Some years later the relatives in Italy lost the seeds and Silvio was able to send them some of his from Australia or the strain would have been lost completely. Even now he does not recognise them as his cucumbers, but those of the Radogna family of Bari and he would not even be in the photo with Maria and the plate of freshly-picked cucumbers. He wants them to be known as Bari Cucumber, although Maria wanted them to be called by the name her family in Italy use - Caroselli Baresi.

For some time this is just what I have wanted - to have the seeds of someone's life in my hands, to have a connection to something historic and significant and to truly feel responsible for saving one tiny piece of the genetic biodiversity of the earth. However, like all meaningful things, it is quite a daunting thought. Moreover, anyone who grows this from now on will have to grow only this cucumber, as cucumbers cross readily, and, Silvio told me, it has special requirements. But when you receive such a gift you can't send it back!

As we settled down for a good talk, Silvio brought out a bottle of his home-made wine, made from grapes that he grew from some cuttings he imported from an area of Italy near Venice where he grew up. He has some land behind Morialta, at Norton Summit, where he grows the vines and the vegetables, as he only has a small back yard where he lives. I must say that I did enjoy that wine, called Prosecco, and he told me it is now one of Jamie Oliver's favourites since his series on Italian food. Odd but true, evidently.
Maria didn't speak much English and it was fun to try out some of my newly acquired Italian on her. I have only had 3 lessons and don't know much more than a few basic phrases so when she answered my introduction with a huge smile,and lots of Italian, I knew I must have got it right.

After talking about the cucumbers Maria led us outside and started picking leaves of herbs for me to try. Then she began to collect some very big olives off the ground and Silvio picked one up too and put it in his mouth, handing me one with instructions to do the same! Oh no, I thought!....It was strong but delicious and not at all bitter. This, said Silvio, is an eating olive and you can eat it without pickling. Maria was banging the branches with a rake and collecting the olives. Silvio said that for the most exquisite taste in all the world I had to take these olives home and fry them - not too hot and without much oil - until they were soft but still held their shape and looked 'boiled'. He said I could come back later in the year and get some cuttings - at the time I was more excited about this than the cucumbers.

I talked with Silvio and Maria for a couple of hours - about all sorts of things - until I just couldn't justify staying any longer. I gave them some of my spinach seeds that I have been collecting for maybe 15 years. I asked Silvio if there was anything I could give him as a gift and he said yes, he would love a quince tree. So, I will get one ASAP from the Rare Fruit Society, probably, and take it around soon.
As soon as I got home I cooked some of those olives and Roger and I had them and truly they are fabulous, especially when squashed onto a piece of toasted olive bread. Buonissimo!

12 comments:

Teresa said...

Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful encounter. I think it's great that you are continuing the history. It's so meaningful. And how I wish I could taste the olives! I wish Silvio good health and hope he gets his quince tree soon!

Will said...

That must be wonderful to be responsible for those cucumber plants with such a history! And I never knew that eating olives existed - why aren't there more of them around?
BTW Jack forwarded me your email Kate - sounds like there's a lot going on!
All the best for Alex.
Cheers,
Will

Maggie said...

What did you think about the cucumbers Kate. We had great success growing Diana's Richmond Green cucumber this year, it was crisp, tasty and hardy to grow so we would probably want to grow that again.
Lovely story.

Alex said...

That's a really special story Mum, I can imagine you retelling it decades in the future as the next generation enjoys those cucumbers and olives!

chaiselongue said...

This is a wonderful story, Kate. I'm looking forward to hearing how the cucumbers grow. So good to be preserving such a history - and keeping the old varieties in the hands and gardens of those who appreciate them and will care for them and share them!
I've read that the olivettes, the wild olives which grow in the garrique around here, and all around the Mediterranean (maybe in your area, too?) are edible straight off the tree. But I haven't tried them yet.

Kate said...

Very interesting, chaiselongue. Try some of those olives and report back! What is olivette ?? On our hillsides near my home there were lots of diffrent olives but the council has them ALL down. If I had known waht they were up to I would have got some cuttings. I used to pick them every year to preserve - they were wonderful and fruity.

Pattie said...

Kate: I've been to Bari! That's where I caught an overnight ship to Corfu, where I saw my first olvie trees!

Deb said...

Great work Kate I knew you were the right person for the job. Saving such seeds is very important. I save The see-more carrots that I was given 20 years ago each season.I will put this story on the blog one day soon. I also mourn the loss of some great swedes a old man down the road used to deliver regularly so I never grew them as he loved it that we would eat them (Not Many do) anyway when he died his wife thew out all his seeds (She was a non gardener) So the message is that non gardener parteners eg Quentin, Roger are made aware of the value of our seed collections.
I'm off to collect more seeds - those from the chestnut trees.

Danny B said...

Interesting story. My great grandfather was from Bari, Italy and brought Italian cucmber seeds to America in the early 1900's. I am growing them for the first time this year, but my family including cousins and aunts has grown them forever. They have been passed down through generations. It is good to see that others cherish and appriciate that history as much as I do.

RadognaCucumber said...

Wow How Exciting,
After seriously picking cucumbers from a friends garden and giving them the bread and butter treatment flavoring, something ran through me and stuck, I wonder if it's genetic in nature, got the chills. My name is Michael A. Radogna, I live in Pennsylvania, uSA. I just finished reading the article posted here about the Radogna cucumbers and you can imagine my excitement..I cannot believe it, a cucumber with my namesake. Yeeeeehaaaa! How wonderful!! I have just emailed to try to acquire these seeds and grow and nuture them for as long as I live, and will pass them along through my family, of course if I get some, so please help me get them, however you can and God Bless you all!, Michael Radogna

Nick said...

My Mother's parents came to the USA around 1905. The family went to New York, then on to Chicago. As a child in the 1960's, I remember many relatives growing these cucumbers, which are really immature melons.

We called them something that sounded like 'cutaseed'. At one point, we lost the seed. Then a friend whos's family came from Bari gave of some of theirs. After a number of years, I decided to grow them again, only to find my seeds had not lasted, however, my cousin gave me some that sprouted.

This variety (simlar varieties) is apparently not that rare, but they deserve to get much more attention. Our way to eat them raw is just to wash them, cut them into lengthwise wedges and sprinkle with salt. They are very refreshing and juicy!

Liz said...

I acquired this plan alreay 3 inches long, annonymously and I now have a plant 5 feet tall in one month with long hairy cucumber looking things on it and have posted pictures of the fruit trying to get someone to identify it. Do you peel it? How long do you let it grow?Do you eat it like a cucumber or a melon?
Thanks so much!
Liz