Food activist is on a mission to save SA's Rainbow Maize from extinction

Melissa de Billot, co-ordinator of Slow Food Ark of Taste SA, tells us more about how this organisation is helping to safe-guard our culinary hertiage

05 August 2018 - 00:00 By Hilary Biller

ON HOW THE SLOW FOOD MOVEMENT IS SAFE-GUARDING THE WORLD'S CULINARY HERITAGE
Slow Food started in Italy in the '80s when a famous US fast-food outlet wanted to open a franchise in a historic and culturally significant part of Rome. The Italians protested this development and won. This led journalist Carlo Petrini and some friends to found the Slow Food movement to campaign against the onslaught of unhealthy fast foods infringing on the rights of small farmers and food producers.
There are about 160 countries around the world where Slow Food is active. The Slow Food mantra of "good, clean, and fair" promotes the production and consumption of food that is healthy, delicious, high quality, organically grown and sold at local level by farmers and food producers.The Ark of Taste is a project run by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity that travels the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet: an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats.There are 60 SA products on the Ark of Taste list. One of my favourites is the heirloom African horned cucumber or mokopana. I grow them every summer and they are a wonderful alternative to the commercial varieties, because they don't need much water or composting, are resistant to fungal diseases, and are prolific producers that can grow up to 100 cucumbers on one plant.
Slow Food in Joburg started the Rainbow Maize Revival Project in 2015 to save an heirloom corn variety in a country dominated by genetically modified corn.
The name comes from the many colours of the kernels, which can be opaque blue, carmine red, pale orange, creamy white, violet, egg-yolk yellow, or pink.
Though there is little historical documentation, it is believed that corn was introduced to South Africa in the 16th century by Portuguese traders.
The Slow Food network has tracked down some farmers in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, in KwaZulu-Natal and recently some seeds were brought to the Gauteng region, to the Soweto and Orange Farm areas, where they are being cultivated by small-scale farmers.Rainbow maize is best enjoyed fresh on the cob, either boiled or grilled on the coals and then dabbed with butter and a bit of chilli sauce. It also makes a fabulous mealie bread.
ON GROWING HEIRLOOM VEG
Vegetables and heirloom seeds are my passion. I grew up on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal, and my mother always had a vegetable garden. She grew unusual veggies that were not always found in the supermarkets. We would always have seasonal veggies like artichokes, chou-chous, and lima beans.
Heirloom seeds are from ancient varieties of plants. In producing your own heirloom seeds the first step is to have a thorough knowledge of the plant's biology. Learning how to select, dry, and store seeds properly after harvesting is also very important. If done properly, seeds can be stored for many years.
If you are looking to purchase and save your own heirloom seeds, in SA there are some wonderful online seed shops, and all the advice you need: Livingseeds and The Gravel Garden. For imported Italian heirloom seeds, go to Sought After Seedlings.
My veggie garden in Linden, Johannesburg, is about 150m². It is quite large for one person if you are doing all the gardening yourself. I try to spend half an hour a day after work doing daily tasks like weeding and watering, and hopefully there will be a few veggies to pick for supper. Over the weekend I spend at least three to four hours digging, weeding, and planting and harvesting seeds and vegetables.
ON INSPIRATIONAL FEMALE FARMERS
I'm inspired by many farmers/gardeners and three women who stand out are:

Loubie Rusch, a fellow Slow Foodie in Cape Town who pioneered the Cape Wild Food Garden in Khayelitsha in 2016;
Refiloe Molefe, a farmer at Bambanani gardens in Bertrams, an urban farm in the inner city of Johannesburg;
and Thato Moagi, a young Limpopo farmer, who, in her 20s, was named Limpopo's Young Farmer of the Year...

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