Food book review: Cabbages and Kings: the origins of fruit and vegetables by Jonathan Roberts Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

Cabbages and Kings: the origins of fruit and vegetables Heart

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

Jonathan Roberts owns a farm in Dorset in England. But to say that he is 'just' a farmer is to view only one side of this multi-faceted writer. He was born in the United States but was schooled at the famous Eton in the United Kingdom and then went on to study history and philosophy at Oxford University.
He has written for Country Life and Readers Digest and has also written a stunning tome on forests throughout the world called Mythic Woods. He recently turned his mind to art with a book entitled Portrait of a Girl and is currently researching the seventeenth century botanist, John Ray.
The book is not long, however there are 228 lavishly illustrated pages packed with dense information. You will want to immerse yourself in every single authoritative sentence. The work is meticulously researched and anything that doesn't add to an understanding of the evolution of the fruit or vegetable is omitted.
There is a chapter devoted to each of thirty five fruit and vegetables or groups of those (for example, blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, wineberries and cloudberries are treated together in one chapter). The fruits are described in the first seventeen chapters and vegetables in the remainder (the tomato is grouped with the vegetables though clearly described as a fruit).
He is able to paint a picture which helps us imagine the evolution of the plants that he describes so lyrically. This from the Foreword:
"The flowering plants go back a very long way, to perhaps 100 million years before anything resembling a human being ever shambled across this planet. Their story passes via the seed-ferns, the trees of the ancient tropical forest and land-usurping seaweeds, to the single-cell organisms that slurped about in the primal, soupy seas of our newly-created world."
Let's take the pomegranate (Punica granatum) as an example. The chapter starts with a reminder of just how old this plant is, along with the information that the earliest sherbet was made with pomegranate juice mixed with snow.
Roberts asserts that the pomegranate probably originated in the north of Persia but spread quickly to China and west to both shores of the Mediterranean. He then explains the complexity of the genus with one species displaying carpels in two rows whereas a species found on the island of Socotra (near Yemen) has only one row.
He traces the references to the berry (yes, it is botanically classified as a berry) in literature starting in 2500BC in Mesopotamia through to the bible, to the reliefs on King Solomon's temple and to the works of Homer where they were mentioned twice in the Odyssey. He quotes Samuel 14:2 which has the phrase "and Saul tarried in the uttermost part of Gibeab under a pomegranate tree which is in Migron".
Moving to Homer, our version of the Odyssey shows: "Tall, heavily laden trees grow there, pear, pomegranate and apple, rich in glossy fruit, sweet figs and dense olives."
And the second reference:
"With deeper red the full pomegranate glows"
Roberts also mentions the problems of Persephone who is condemned to spend part of each year in Hades as a result of eating pomegranates.
He then claims that in modern days their fabulous thirst quenching properties have been subsumed by the rise and rise of citrus fruits such as the lemon, lime and orange.
While we agree with this assessment from a Western perspective, we can, however, attest to the continuing role of pomegranate juice in thirst quenching in South East Asia and the Middle East. We vividly remember one oppressively hot day in Bangkok when we ventured to the Dalat Aw Taw Kaw market and were revived by large glasses of freshly made pomegranate juice. We were also recently impressed by the preponderance of this fabulous tree in China with pomegranates spouting in the courtyard of a tea producer we visited and the tree growing out of one of the famous bridges over a canal in a water village near Shanghai.
Also, a close friend of ours, raised in Beirut, testifies to the importance of pomegranate juice in a cooling role in that city.
There is also a wonderful chapter on citrus fruits. Although the origins of citrus fruits are in South East Asia, their undisputed attributes have seen them taken up by almost every cuisine in the world. In fact, Roberts claims that the citron (the precursor of the lemon) was introduced to the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great after he entered India! It certainly has gained a strong foothold there. A drive along the Amalfi Coast south of Naples reveals extensive planting of the large juicy lemons for which that area is famous and the juice of gnarled, large, mis-shapen lemons can be savoured in the village of San Antonio in the hills of Corsica.
Citrus spread with Spanish journeys to Central America and limes are now an inseparable part of the cuisine there. Orange groves now define the countryside in much of California.
He delves into other citrus varieties such as pummelo, mandarin, grapefruit and kumquat - yet, curiously, doesn't mention the Japanese yuzu.
This is a thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated book that deserves a strong place in food literature. We can thoroughly recommend it.
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