One of the many ways in which the stars of British Street Food distinguish themselves is with the provenance of their ingredients. Just ask about them (if you’ve got an hour or two to spare). Whether it’s a particular cut of 28-day aged rare breed British beef in their burger or a variety of Welsh mozzarella on their pizza — they chose the best ingredient for the job. I’ve always been a fan of our old varieties. I even adopted a heritage vegetable. Thanks to me (and a few thousand other donors) future generations will be able to enjoy an Aunt Madge tomato in their salad. It’s called ‘giving back’, people, and we all need to do it. Aunt Madge’s tomatoes were in danger of extinction. It’s happening every day – and it’s how 98 per cent of vegetable varieties have disappeared in the last 100 years. According to Garden Organic, a charity dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, nearly all the vegetables we eat these days come from a total of 20 plant species. Our world of choice is shrinking. The supermarkets are selling us what’s easiest to grow and easiest to harvest – not what tastes the best. But I hadn’t really thought about the benefits of genetically engineering fruit and veg until I read this by Harold McGee in the American food magazine Saveur.
In his May 2008 Saveur article, “Shape Shifters,” author Frederick Kaufman visits a professor at Ohio State University who studies plant genes that control the shapes of fruits and vegetables. The prof has developed proprietary software for shape analysis and has a patent pending on one shape gene but refuses to hint at what new gene she’s hunting. Rereading Kaufman’s article, with its palpable enthusiasm and frustration, I wish he had seen and tasted what I did last September at a gathering at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. There, Dan Barber introduced a starry conclave of 40-plus fellow chefs (among them Ferran Adrià, April Bloomfield, and Daniel Humm) to a group of university scientists and independent seed breeders, all eager to use the best of traditional and modern breeding tools to develop the produce and grains of the chefs’ dreams. Openly, collaboratively, we discussed the future of food, and we ate. The breeders described peppers developed for aroma rather than heat, tomatoes for resistance to the periodically devastating late blight, wheats for making lighter-textured whole-grain bread, maltlike syrups to replace commodity sugar. We dined on new varieties of potato and winter squash and that startlingly good bread. This new chefs and breeders collective promises to shift much more than shapes.