The foodie binge that is “Tasting Australia” is finished here in Adelaide for another two years. It is an eight day long celebration of all things food-related and anyone who is anyone on the national and international food scene can be seen prowling around our acclaimed Central Market at some time or another throughout the course of the week. During the festival I was very fortunate to be able to meet and spend some time with a much-loved Australian institution – Peter Cundall and his considerably more restrained, but no less committed wife, Tina. Peter is nationally respected for his enthusiasm and passion for gardening, with a particular focus on teaching others how to build and maintain their own vegetable gardens. He has also come to public attention in recent months for his very vocal opposition to the controversial Gunn’s pulp mill, planned for the beautiful Tamar Valley of Tasmania, but is no stranger to political activism having been a past Senate candidate for the Communist Party (1961) and Chairman of the Wilderness Society during the successful battle to prevent the building of the Franklin River Dam. During our conversation he spoke enthusiastically about “The Lost Seed“, a Tasmanian company dedicated to the protection and cultivation of heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables which, in turn, reminded me of seed banks and a remarkable story.
Seed banks are institutions set up to collect and store seeds with the aim of preserving, as much as possible, food crop security and plant biodiversity for future generations. Many plants that were cultivated for generations are no longer considered useful for commercial agriculture and are becoming rare – if not conserved they will be lost forever. Further, a great deal of food crops are now genetically modified and frequently genetically homogenous which could conceivably leave them vulnerable to disease or pest attack. There are many hundreds of seed banks throughout the world, storing countless gene types, but still only representing a fraction of the world’s biodiversity. Of the more notable facilities there is the Svalbard International Seed Vault built into a tunnel in the side of a mountain in Norway and designed to withstand nuclear war and the Millenium Seed Bank Project, co-ordinated by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, whose purpose is to insure against the extinction of plants in the wild and who aim to collect and store seeds 10% of the world’s dryland flora.
In St.Petersburg, Russia, is the Valivov Institute of Plant Industry, one of the earliest seed banks in the world, set up by Nikolai Valivov. During World War II St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was subjected to a blockage by the German army, which lasted for 872 days. The city was isolated, with disruption to the supplies of food and water causing the deaths of thousands from starvation. The botanists who worked in the facility guarded the seeds – many of them edible – during the siege, with unbelievable diligence. When the blockage was lifted and troops and supplies were able to get into the city several of these men were found, starved to death guarding their charges!
One heirloom plant which is in no way endangered and is currently very much in season is rhubarb. Rhubarb is an ancient plant, having been used medicinally for centuries and mentioned in a Chinese herbal reference believed to have been compiled in 2700 BC. It was not used as food until some time in the 17th century, when sugar became more affordably available to the general populace. While we are all familiar with it’s use in pies and crumbles – often with apples – I was interested in finding other uses for it and turned my thoughts to the humble muffin. I was very pleased with these muffins – they have little fat, the flavours go well together and the odd burst of tartness from the rhubarb is an excellent counterpoint for the sweetness of the sugar. I used white flour, but there is no reason that wholemeal couldn’t be used, just add a little more liquid if the mixture is too stiff and remember – never over mix muffins or they will be tough!
- 1 1/4 cup caster sugar
- 1 1/2 cup rhubarb, finely diced
- 1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
- 2 1/2 cups SR flour
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- 1 cup buttermilk
- zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 180C.
- Combine diced rhubarb with dry ingredients.
- In separate bowl, whisk oil, egg, vanilla, buttermilk, orange rind and juice.
- Add dry ingredients to liquid and mix with a wooden spoon until JUST combined – about 20 strokes of the spoon.
- Spoon into muffin pan.
- Sprinkle with sugar/cinnamon mix and bake 15-20 minutes.