While traveling in Italy, funny things happened to my knowledge of tomatoes. Two things particularly, the first was the unexpected regionalization of the vegetables and especially in the tomatoes. The second was what Italian tomato names represent to us in the states. Ill explain both a bit further.
My trip to Italy started like any other trips to Italy, at a farmers market and its bountiful beauty from the produce to the meats everywhere and the old buildings adding to the splendor of just being in freaking Italy. There was something different about this market as I arrived in Orbassano, especially as I looked back now and can see the vast differences between this first market and others. I arrived in mid October but there was quite a bit of produce still among all the vendors and plenty of tomatoes to be found. Some vendors will bring in vegetables they didn’t grow so creating an interesting variety of diversity to some extent. The seed companies that farmers are ordering from are providing only a few options to grow. Some markets had a different organic feel that were just vendors bringing only what they grew, these were the good ones to find seeds at. The issue was finding those markets was harder, I was fortunate to have Farmer Bruno at the farm I was staying with. Bruno and his family were one of the original founders of the organic market in Cuminiana outside of Turin.
Bruno was a wonderful host, his family taught me a lot about Piedmonts regionally. Their farm saves varieties of Northern Borlotto beans, a special red polenta corn and a handful of other vegetables they sell at markets around. They didn’t have as many varieties as I would have thought especially when it came to tomatoes. They had many similar ones that were at the other markets. I was starting to ask them questions about the seed regulations and how they get seeds and why they don’t have more varieties. He explained that he had spoke with the seed savers once but it seemed to be a little inaccessible for him. I am not sure if it was because his older generation didn’t want to mess with seeds from an untrusted source and why fix what isn’t broken, right? They also buy all there starts from a company like many others do in Italy. Anyways, I left the seed savers catalog with him, since it was in Italian and I wanted them to start saving even more seeds, even though it would have been a nice collector’s piece from my trip.
I thought I would see hundreds of different varieties in different colors and shapes. But no Italians are traditional and like what they like. Red tomatoes, lots of red tomatoes. So when I got over that I searched for different shapes and flavors within the regions.
At many markets there were some different sizes of the Canestrino type which translates to “little baskets”. In the US Franchi seeds sells us this tomato as the all inclusive Large Red Pear. It took 12 years of growing tomatoes and a research trip to Italy to figure out what tomatoes we are being sold by Franchi.
Another is the costoluto types translates to “beefsteak”, so many varieties are offered under just this name followed by the city they were grown in. Some you see ribbed which is translated to “a coste”, so (Costoluto a coste di Genovese), is ribbed beefsteak from Genoa. It obviously took learning some Italian to understand all the regionally.
Another type you will see is the Coure Di Bue variety which translates to “heart of the bull”. You will see this listed as Oxheart varieties here in the states as well. Seed savers in North America list over 400 Coure Di Bue types showing the evolution of these tomatoes from the regions they were grown and selected for. It is important to keep the regions listed from where they were collected from to keep the tradition from that region alive. Not to mention keeping these names straight. It might change a little bringing it to Oregon but for the most part if you can nail down its traits you can keep selecting for the best qualities within the variety as you keep saving seeds each year.
After visiting more than 15 markets around Italy I got a feel for the produce they were offering. Stopping at any shop that sold tomatoes along the way as well. I came to the conclusion that the seeds were so heavily controlled that only families were keeping these traditional regional varieties alive. So luckily I was able to connect with the Italian Seed Savers group towards the end of my trip that allowed me to access this treasure of Italian seeds. A lot of these older varieties were harder to find due to the restrictions the European Union has put on trading and saving seeds by individuals. The seed trade in Europe is much more strict then the US. I was very lucky to stumble on a seed vault.
The Portland Seedhouse was inspired by the seed trade in Italy and those protecting what they have remaining because of strict seed laws. Basically the re-innovation began of old ideas becoming new again. You can find the seeds collected in Italy and others online on the website, selected retail stores in the Northwest and at markets around Portland.