Have you ever eaten a Neolithic food?
It's fascinating to see history growing before one's eyes and then taste it, too.
The Piano Grande, as the name suggests, is a huge plain and is encircled by dramatic mountains in Central Italy. The frequently photographed mountain village of Castelluccio, located at 1400 metres, is the highest point of habitation in the Apennines. Here I went to hunt out a heritage food in its ancestral home.
Roveja is a type of Pisum sativum, or wild pea, that was cultivated by Neolithic people on this plain. Archaeological findings suggest the Apennine Mountains may have been the first place of habitation for prehistoric people in what is now Italy, and historians believe this plain was the first site for grain cultivation in the Central Italy.
By the 1990s only a few local people remembered roveja, and some found the plants growing in gullies or near streams.
In the Middle Ages, roveja still endured as the staple diet eaten in the form of a "puls," which is an ancient Roman-style of porridge and consumed with a savoury sauce on top. Over time roveja was forgotten. By the 1990s only a few local people remembered roveja, and some found the plants growing in gullies or near streams.
Luckily one family took action. Daniele Testa explains:
"Like my father before me, we were growing heritage crops here. My brother and I decided to start cultivating roveja. When we applied for the organic certification people in Brussels, in the EU, couldn't believe that this plant was the real thing. They came to inspect it and they took seeds back for the European Seed Association seed bank in Brussels. We were the first to cultivate it. Now it's become a popular product."
Daniele says he was offered the opportunity to licence the seed so that anyone purchasing it would pay him. He decided not to in order for it to become widely available again and to grow into a niche mountain product that would support the local economy.
In fact, the Piano Grande is famous for its cultivation of a range of ancient products like cicerchia, farro and a special type of lentil that is smaller and softer so it does not need to be pre-soaked, nor cooked for more than 20 minutes.
Happily the ancient seeds support more than the economy. These legumes give nitrogen to the soil and remove the need for fertilizers. They are naturally hardy "wild" plants that work in harmony with the environment and don't require chemical treatments. They can withstand severe weather so they will help us face climate change, and they support a host of microorganisms and insects making biodiversity thrive.
The Monti Sibillini National Park www.sibillini.net report many endangered birds have found a sanctuary here, including the golden eagle and a type of partridge that requires traditional farming practices for its habitat. To find a healthy habitat, this partridge, Alectoris gracea, had moved to the Piano Grande where it lives at a considerably higher altitude than its species would normally tolerate.
It's radically good practice when you consider the land has been cultivated in a variety of forms since about 3000 B.C. and is still sustainable for us today -- largely due to the synergy between man and nature that these heritage seeds offer.
This style of farming in small strips of rotating legumes allows a sea of wildflowers to blossom each year, becoming the largest tourist attraction in the Central Apennines. While this brings its own problems in terms of conservation, it makes good business. Daniele's family run an agriturismo, www.guerrinmeschino.it, and the restaurant serves their food from the field to the table in a matter of metres.
Observing the small seeds of this Neolithic food sprouting in the same rich black earth is seeing history in action. If we are serious about sustainability, we need look no further.
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