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PRODUCE WITH A PEDIGREE THE TREND TOWARD FRUITS AND VEGETABLES OF IMPECCABLE TASTE

Sally Cicarell has been growing 19th century Brandywine tomatoes for the past four years in her Snyder garden.

Dave Meloon, a chemist by day, has 13 different types of antique apples in his Town of Cambria orchard.

The Clutterbucks of North Buffalo grow a red and white striped beet called Chiogga that is much milder than an ordinary dark red beet.

And Marcia Rafter Ritchie and partner Barbara Krouse of Springville grow many old-fashioned varieties of turnips, carrots and squash in their Nottingham Farm fields and sell them to local chefs.

In fact, heirloom fruit and vegetables -- the very same varieties grown in gardens as far back as 100 years ago -- are so popular with gardeners (and eaters) as the end of this century approaches that you might call this a mini-trend.

Many nurseries now offer seeds for heirloom fruits and vegetable. Magazines like Gourmet are beginning to feature recipes for them as well.

Experts say the growing popularity has to do with taste and mouth feel. Americans are getting fussier about both, and heirloom gardeners think their produce far surpasses the taste of the mass-produced hybrid varieties of today.

The commercial produce in supermarkets today was developed for ease of shipping, shelf life or disease resistance. Heirloom produce is grown because it tastes far superior, its fans say.

There are other reasons for the interest in heirloom produce. Some experts point out that the varieties add necessary biological diversification to our food supply; others think that the growing interest in organic food has something to do with it. (Though not all heirloom fruits and vegetables are raised chemical-free, pesticide use is usually minimal.)

Another reason may be a bit more personal. Raising heirloom produce tends to help people reconnect with their agricultural past.

Growing and eating something called a Mortgage Lifter Tomato, for instance, seems to put things in homey perspective. The Mortgage Lifter was developed by a farmer in the 1930s, the story goes, who sold the seeds and used the income to save the farm he was about to lose.

Heirloom gardeners are committed people.

Five-foot-four Sally Cicarell is so fond of the flavor of her big pink/red Brandywine tomatoes (they sometimes weigh in at more than a pound) that she doesn't even mind climbing up on a stool to tend to the top of the plants.

Brandywines, like most heirloom varieties, throw long runners and roots; when they are staked, they can grow over 6 feet high.

Dave Meloon talks about his Spitzenberg apples with respect. "They were Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple," he says of the fruit, which is orange with gray spots on the skin. Meloon also dotes on his Golden Russets, which are yellow with brown spots.

"Apples have been bred to be large and red through the years, but a lot of flavor has been lost along the way," he says.

To an heirloom fan, color and shape are simply not that important. Certainly both can be interestingly different from what is now accepted as the norm -- and that fact only makes it more appealing. Last month's issue of Gourmet magazine, for instance, featured a bowl of multicolored heirloom tomatoes on its cover. Some were red, but some were yellow. Others were green, orange or brown.

Truth to tell, for the next few years most people will become acquainted with heirloom produce through restaurants. It's almost impossible to find it in supermarkets now because it's grown in very small quantities and doesn't travel far.

Professional chefs have a much easier time latching on to this kind of produce.

Emily Conable, curator of horticulture at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, which tests 19th-century produce for the Harris Seed Company, says this is not surprising.

"It's interesting how the terms 'heirloom' and 'gourmet' are synonymous," she says.

Nottingham Farms, for instance, holds a party each year when the catalogs come out; chefs come out to place orders for the following year.

"There's much more flavor, and the texture is way different in heirloom produce," says Chef Alain Jourand, of the Enchante restaurant on Allen Street, who is a Nottingham customer.

"The zucchini and other squash stays firm, not mushy or watery. I cook halibut and put green and yellow squash over it to look like fish scales," he says.

Mark Hutchinson, of Hutch's Restaurant on Delaware Avenue, raves about the round summer squash he buys from Nottingham Farms. "You don't have to do anything to it but add a little salt, pepper and olive oil and saute."

Home gardeners can buy heirloom seeds from several outlets, including Harris, which features a Genesee Country line of vegetables that were grown in Western New York in the 19th century.

Bloody Butcher Corn or Great White Tomatoes, anyone? Take a chance.

Other seed sources include Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, Mew Mexico, or Shepherd's Garden Seeds of Torrington, Conn.

And most home gardeners do as 19th century farmers used to do -- they dry and save seeds from year to year.

One good source on the subject is the "Heirloom Vegetable Garden" by extension specialists Roger A. Kline and Robert E. Becker. The booklet, which is beautifully illustrated, can be obtained through the Cornell Extension Service.

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