Unusual hybrid and heirloom cultivars to tap into consumer hype

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I’ve been writing a lot about fusion food recently here at Divine Eating Out. Whilst wandering around my local Saturday food market, I noticed an item that made me realise that I’ve neglected to discuss a whole subject that takes fusion food to the next level. Displayed in the middle of one of my favourite organic fruit stalls was a new variety that I’d never noticed before. Small, leafy bundles in green and purple hues sat in a pile – they simultaneously resembled spring green and miniature romaine lettuces.

Curious, I spoke to the vendor, who explained that these bizarre items were called ‘kalettes’. She said that the tiny leafy greens were hybrid vegetables, formed out of the natural cross-pollination of kale and Brussel sprouts. Naturally, I took some home to try. Roasted and added to a salad, these kalettes were an entirely new taste sensation – with a texture and mouthfeel I’d never experienced before.

Throughout my years in the soft drinks industry, I’ve been among the first to try several rare and exciting fruits and flavour combinations that took the global market by storm. But, scouring the stalls at my local market – full of flavour combinations from all around the world – I realised that these hybrid items are just another form of fusion food.

Cultivars such as the pineberry marry the genetics of pineapples - originating in Paraguay - and strawberries - thought to have first grown in Virginia. These hybrid plants represent a globalised world, where inspiration is exchanged and blended in the form of flavour to create new, exciting ideas.

In recent years, the public demand for ‘hybrid’ and ‘heirloom’ fruits and vegetables, in particular, has grown to unprecedented levels. But, with these unusual varieties becoming readily available everywhere from high-end eateries to supermarkets, what place does hybrid and heirloom produce have in the restaurant?

Hybrids and heirlooms – What’s the difference?

Presented with a striped purple carrot or a strangely-shaped tomato, you might immediately assume that you are looking at a hybrid plant. However, many of the more unusual varieties on the market are actually heirloom plants – which are actually not ‘new’ at all. So what is the difference between hybrid and heirloom produce?

Bonnie Plants explains: “A hybrid vegetable is created when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant, aiming to produce an offspring, or hybrid, that contains the best traits of each of the parents. Cross-pollination is a natural process that occurs within members of the same plant species. In hybridization, pollination is carefully controlled to ensure that the right plants are crossed to achieve the desired combination of characteristics, such as bigger size or better disease resistance. The process of developing a hybrid typically requires many years.”

Heirlooms, on the other hand, are much older subspecies of fruit and vegetable. According to Bonnie Plants, they are typically at least 50 years old: “Most heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Others may have been developed by a university a long time ago (again, at least 50 years), in the early days of commercial breeding. All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next.”

A controversial topic?

Heirloom vegetables

However, there is some contention around the subject of hybrid planting. While heirlooms are regarded by the organic farming industry to be a marker of quality, I have discovered that ‘hybrid’ produce has many different meanings among the community. Certain hybrids – the genetically modified or ‘F1’ varieties – are considered detrimental to both the natural biosphere of plant species, and to human health. These plants are those which have come into being through manual genetic engineering, where the plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally.

Kathy from Rare Seeds, a company specialising in the cultivation of unusual heirloom fruit and vegetable species, explains why many producers avoid these kinds of hybrid varieties:

“The main reason we discourage planting F1 hybrids is their inability to reproduce true to the parent plants. That means you cannot save the seeds, plant them, and expect to get the same kind of plant. You don't know what you will get when you plant the seeds of an F1 hybrid plant.

“Another reason we discourage the planting of hybrids is that modern day hybrids were usually developed for the shipping ability and longer shelf life of the produce. In many cases, those character traits have been at the expense of taste and nutrition.”

The point here is that hybrid varieties should be used consciously. Chefs and restaurant owners hoping to tap into the consumer demand for unusual fruits and vegetables should also remember that these discerning customers are also likely to be those engaged in debates around sustainability. Serving up genetically-modified hybrids that may have negative ramifications on the natural ecosystem of cultivars will not be well-received – and trust me, these are questions that will be asked if you serve up unusual fruit and vegetables. Hybrids get people talking. Consumers are also looking to be impressed by the flavour of the ingredient as much as by its genetic makeup. Clearly, the novelty of hybrids alone is not sufficient - quality remains key.

Consumer hype and hybrid cultivars

What is it, then, that makes hybrids and heirlooms so appealing to customers? A key element is, undeniably, the novelty value. With so many restaurants on the scene, almost all of them boasting the use of local, high-quality produce, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd, even if you are using the finest fruit and veg. Unique hybrid and heirloom varieties are one sure-fire way to capture the attention of the diner from the oft, intriguing and inspiring them with ingredients like the ‘cucamelon’ which many will never of heard of. The brilliant thing about many of these varieties is that the names hold just enough familiarity for diners to identify their influences, whilst remaining mysterious and alluring,

Dining is all about taking an essential function of human life – eating – and transforming it into an indulgent and stimulating experience far from the realms of the quotidian. Throughout our lives, common ingredients such as carrots and white potatoes are inevitably absorbed into the realms of the ordinary for many diners, so simply exchanging these for an heirloom or hybrid variety can immediately capture the diner’s attention. When we’re eating out, we want to try something new, and few things can be as original as an entirely new ingredient presented on the plate.

The best way to achieve the fundamentals of sustainability and taste, whilst inspiring consumers with something different is by serving naturally-occurring hybrid and heirloom fruits and vegetables. Hybrids and heirlooms also open up new realms of flavour combinations for chefs and mixologists alike. For examples, adventurous bartenders could add a slightly more warming, sweet flavour to a mojito by using blood limes instead of the classic green varieties.

But which varieties will most successfully tap into consumer hype? Read on to discover a few of the most popular hybrid and heirloom fruits and vegetables…

The top heirloom and hybrid food trends

Kalettes

Kalettes

Kalettes piqued my interest when browsing the market stalls, but they have also excited countless consumers around the world. James Fell from expert foodservice insight blog, Speciality Food Magazine, tells us:

“Kale, the brassica oleracea that captivated the health food bloggerverse a few years back, is hailed for being high in anti-oxidants, fibre, iron and other beneficial qualities. However, if shoppers were quickly becoming bored of simply cramming it into their smoothies or crisping it up in the oven, some smart folk amalgamated it with another ingredient to form a curious-sounding, health-focused food. Step forward, kalettes.

“These bouncy, tussled, British-bred hybrids are the marriage of kale and the oft-divided Brussels sprout. 15 years in the making, growers at Tozer Seeds devised them to accentuate the best flavours of both ingredients - perhaps it even cloaks the excessively bitter-tasting chemical that some people detect in Brussels sprouts? Nonetheless, the advent of kalettes has been much-welcomed, especially as their nutty flavour works fantastically in stir-fries, roasted or even eaten raw.”

Pineberries

One of the hybrid plants with the most consumer hype are pineberries. Though undeniably closer to a strawberry in appearance, pineberries are composed of both pineapples and the popular berry, resulting in an unusual white colour, with red seeds on the outside. It is in the flavour where the pineapple element really becomes apparent – the similarity is uncanny, especially with paired with the distinctive texture of the strawberry.

Bring a tropical vibe into your strawberry parfait by using pineberries as a garnish, with their pineapple flavour cutting through the classic taste for a more interesting palate. They can also be used in a smoothie along with banana and yoghurt, for a unique and slightly more fresh-tasting twist on the classic offerings.

Yuzu

Yuzu

James also recommends yuzu – an ingredient you may well have seen listed on the ingredients of an organic superfood juice. He says, “Yuzu, believed to be a hybrid between the Ichang papeda and Satsuma mandarin, is another hugely popular ingredient. Hailing from East Asia, it is revered for its punchy citrus taste and has become an ingredient that is making waves in the premium food sector.

“You'd be hard-pressed to find the fruit itself in the UK, but its juice can be commonly found on the shelves in supermarkets like Waitrose. A personal favourite example of a product that uses the ingredient expertly is the award-winning Lauden Chocolate's Japanese Yuzu & White Chocolate Ganache - a triumph of chocolate-making.”

Eaten raw, yuzu is particularly sour and perhaps not all that appealing. However, consumed as a juice, used in baking or cocktails, it adds a real punch of flavour. The most classic way to cook with yuzu, though, is in ponzu, an all-purpose Japanese citrus and soy sauce ideal for marinating chicken or fish.

Cucamelons

Cucamelon

Cucamelons are one of the most aesthetically-appealing heirloom fruits on the scene right now. These are commonly assumed to be hybrids, but, as Kathy explains, this is not actually the case:

“We do not consider cucamelons to be hybrids. It is actually a very old variety from Mexico and has been cultivated since Aztec times. We sell cucamelon seeds, also known as Mexican Sour Gherkins. They are open pollinated and reproduce true to type. What you are actually seeing in bars and restaurants today is a popularity of old heirloom varieties that are becoming increasingly popular. In most cases, they are not hybrids.”

This is brilliant news for the many of us who have become totally enchanted by these miniature fruits. The cucamelon has the shape and size of a grape, with the appearance of a tiny watermelon and the taste of cucumber, with just a hint of lemon. Grown on ornamental vines with tiny leaves and flowers, these fruits are as beautiful on the plate as they are delicious. A refreshing addition to any salad, cucamelons are the perfect way to add a subtle hint of sweetness to a dish.

Romanesco

Romanesco risotto with parmesan

Cauliflower and broccoli combine to make this striking vegetable that has been described as resembling everything from a succulent to a marine creature. However, Romanesco is simply an edible flower with a very appealing appearance, in vibrant green hues and a spiral shape.

Immediately catching the eye, Romanesco is just as good to taste. The flavour is much like that of cauliflower, but with a subtle, yet significant, nutty, earthy touch. It can be used as cauliflower would in a variety of recipes, whether raw, par-cooked or fully cooked.

Mario Batali, for example, told the Seattle Times, “I usually sauté it slowly with garlic and lemon zest, and punctuate with red pepper flakes for zing.” However you choose to serve the Romanesco, be sure to emphasise its unusual shape and colour to capture the attention of guests.

The beauty of hybrid and heirloom produce is that there will always be more inspiring fusions to discover. For example, Kathy says, “We have been sending seed collection teams abroad to collect seeds in Asia, South America, Europe and further afield. Currently, we have some really great corns from Peru, hot peppers from the jungle, purple tomatoes, blue beans, striped peanuts, and more.”

As producers scour the globe for some of the most unusual and exciting varieties, we can expect to see more and more fascinating flavour combinations in our dishes and drinks in the future. So, if you want to be at the forefront of the latest developments at the granular level, sourcing some of these new hybrid and heirloom ingredients is a must.