Garden Seeds in Early Modern England

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The second edition of Sir Hugh Plat’s book on gardening.

‘…Such as are old and withered, or else… such as are stark naught’ – Symposiast Malcolm Thick on the variable quality of garden seeds in early Modern England

Without seeds it is impossible to grow most vegetables and, as bread is made from ground seeds, that too would not exist without them. Seeds are therefore the starting point of most gardening and I hope to discuss imports of new types of vegetable seed at the 2018 Symposium. Meanwhile, many of you will be familiar with the biblical parable of the sower in Matthew 13:

3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.

I’m sure many churchgoing gardeners over the centuries have sat in their pews listening to this passage and thought ruefully that Christ made an unrealistic assumption when he spoke this parable- he assumed that the sower had viable seed in the first place. Had He acquired it from an unscrupulous or unskilled seed seller He may well have found that no plants sprang up from any of the grounds they landed on. The problem of seed quality is ever present for gardeners. A parliamentary report in 2013 commented:

Plant reproductive material in the form of seeds and other types of material (such as young plants) is an important first step in the agri-food chain, with farmers, growers, forestry managers and gardeners needing assurance as to the identity of this material in terms of yield and disease resistance, and its quality (for example, purity and germination rate).’

The report went on:

…the EU has over the last 50 years built up a body of legislation, comprising 12 Directives and some 90 supplementary acts, to provide these assurances.

Prior to the EU, the British Parliament passed the Seeds Act 1920 which, in the case of garden seeds, laid down that the seeds were to be tested for purity and germination rates before they were advertised for sale and they should comply with minimum germination rates. Even so, these were not particularly high for some varieties, ranging from 75% for broad beans to 45% for parsnips.

The main problem in the past was that there was no way of telling from merely looking at seeds, whether they would germinate or not. Added to this was the similarity of many seeds- a great many were small, round, and dark in colour- confusing for the inexperienced gardener. In sixteenth century London seeds were often sold by women in the streets, either home-grown or bought from importing merchants. The blame for bad seed was, by the Elizabethan gentleman gardener Sir Hugh Plat, placed squarely on to sellers. In his book on gardening he let his feelings known in a fine stream of invective which gathered pace as he wrote it, eventually taking in the conduct of (women) fowl-sellers as well:

[it] is the ordinary practice in these days, with all such as follow that way, either to deliver the seeds they sell mingled with such as are old and withered, or else without any mingling at all to sell such as are stark naught. I would there were some fit punishment devised for these petit cozeners, by whose means many poor men in England, do oftentimes lose, not only the charge of their seed, but the whole use and benefit of their ground, after they have bestowed the best part of their wealth upon it. Cheapside is as full of these lying and forswearing Huswives as the Shambles and Gracechurch street are of that shameless crew of Poulterers wives, who both daily & most damnably; yea upon the Sabbath day itself, run headlong into willful perjury, almost in every bargain which they make……maintaining their sales, with such bold countenances, and cutting speeches, with such knavish practices, and such forlorn Consciences, as they have both driven honest Matrons from their stalls, and so corrupted a number of young Maiden Servants with their bold and lewd lying, with their desperate swearing and forswearing, that they have made all plain and modest speech, yea all kind of Christianity to seem base and rustical unto them. I would inveigh more bitterly against this sin, if my text would bear it; but now I will leave it unto the several Preachers of the Parishes where they dwel, who can present this matter more sharply, and with less offence than I may; I pray God that either by them, or by the Magistrates, or by one means or other, this great dishonour of God and of Religion may be speedily removed amongst us.

Plat was not alone in condemnation of seed-sellers nor in high flights of invective. Richard Gardiner, a cloth merchant and gardener from Shrewsbury in 1599 held similar views:

I desire that all which would sow onion or others aforesaid in gardens, to provide seedes
of their own growing & not be decieved yearly as commonly they be, to no small
losse in generall to this Land, by those which bee common sellers of Garden seedes,
I cannot omitte nor spare to deliver my minde, concerning the great and abominable
falsehoode of those sortes of people which sell garden seedes:

He goes on to estimate the loss in crops saying

consider how many thousands of pounds are robbed yeerely from the common wealth by these Catterpillars

and he asks that

Almighty God turne their hearts or confound such false proceedings against the commonwealth

The seed-trade was, until the nineteenth century, concentrated in London, one reason for this being the high proportion of seeds imported from abroad – many came from Italy and other Mediterranean countries. The early eighteenth century seedsman Stephen Switzer sought to shift the blame for bad seed on to the foreign producers (and Catholicism). He explained that broccoli seed had to be imported, it was:

a Kind of Italian Kele, or Colewort, which grows on the Sea-Coasts about Naples, and other Places in Italy; from whence the best Seed is yearly exported, that which is saved in England being little worth.


The greatest Difficulty that attends this Affair in the getting Seeds from abroad, is, the great Cheat that those People, who gather it on the Sea-side, put upon the Merchants and consequently upon us here, has been a great Hindrance to using it for this Year: For though I saw the Bag just brought from the Water-side and mark’d with an Italian Mark and Character, and saw the Bill of Parcels, &c in the Importer’s own Hands, yet when it came up, it was nothing else but Turneps; so little Faith is to be found amongst those Collectors of Seeds, who no doubt think it no Sin to cheat Hereticks.

Switzer proposed to sow some seed in his own nursery- ground before selling to his customers, to check on its germination rate and the quality.

The nineteenth century was plagued by growing mass production of food and accompanying adulteration. Adulteration was also a problem for buyers of seeds and the Adulteration of Seeds Act, 1869 sought to alleviate this. But it only covered the sale of seed known to be dead and artificially coloured seed. The Country Gentleman’s Magazine in 1869 pointed out that mixing sand with seeds and selling paste imitations was prevalent and had not been made illegal. So it was not until proven scientific tests were available, and proper legislation was passed in 1920 that the poor gardener could sow seeds he or she had purchased with some confidence that they would germinate and develop into the vegetables they were advertised to be.

Food and Landscape: Recipes from an Armenian – Turkish Banquet

The Saturday evening dinner at the 2017 Symposium was ‘Landscape: Compliments of the Soil – Flavours from the Armenian and Turkish Borderlands organized by Gamze Íneceli and Íhsan Karayazi in association with the MSA the Culinary Arts Academy.

The MSA Academy of Istanbul have generously shared their recipes for Chard Leaves Stuffed with Emmer and Sour Cherries; Barlotti Bean Puree with Pickled Carrots and Pastirma and Aubergine, Courgette and Strained Yogurt with Lavash Crisps.
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Borlotti Beans in Burgundy

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Image credit: Di Murrell
Symposiast Di Murrell plants ‘Seeds’ in anticiaption of next year’s Symposium

We wondered at the significance of the borlotti beans and how they might have fitted into the food-fest which is the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery. Why should there be packets and packets of the things there for the taking? Could they have been a small gift from Borough Market and meant to be placed beside our plates when we sat down to our Ploughman’s Lunch but forgotten in the haste of serving? Maybe we were supposed to take them away to pot up and plant; to have an actual living memory of our week-end at St.Catz? Perhaps they were meant to be a link between this year’s subject – ‘Landscape’ and next year’s – ‘Seeds’? Is a bean a seed or is it a fruit or could it be both, I wondered? No idea – but as we left the dining hall we helped ourselves to several packets of them anyway.

Two days later we were back at our small hovel in Burgundy. It was late and dark as we walked into the garden but we knew immediately something was wrong. Our feet scuffed through leaves of Virginia creeper torn from the walls of our old house which now lay in shredded heaps on the crazy paving path. How odd! Perhaps our friend Markus had been round and decided to give the stuff a haircut – it grows so fast at this time of year – but surely he would have cleared it away? Too tired to think it through we tottered off to bed and woke late the following morning to perfect Burgundy weather: sun in a cloudless sky with a cool breeze to temper the heat. Just as it had been when we had departed for Oxford only a few days previously. Except – something had changed.

Our ancient peach tree had been, when we left, weighed down with fruit. It now stood like a forlorn waif in the centre of our small garden, its leaves in tatters and its fruit gone. On the ground beneath lay heaps of half-grown peaches, pockmarked and bruised. Every soft leaved plant in the garden looked as though it had been attacked by locusts. All the flowers had disappeared.

We went to find Markus. His large allotment was decimated. Gone were his courgettes, his cucumbers, his salads, his onions, his fennel; every leaf and stalk torn, shredded and dying. The roots – potatoes, beets, radishes and carrots – would soon die too without the energy their leaves provide. Fruit lay everywhere upon the ground; tomatoes bashed to pieces; the broccoli, cavolo nero, and runner beans planted especially for his English friends (the French don’t grow these), all destroyed. This same brutal scene was replicated in every garden throughout our village and a line could be plotted across the landscape marking the trail of devastation. Caused by a storm of hailstones the size of golfballs, our neighbours had endured an onslaught from the heavens that had lasted a full twenty minutes. The ice lay up to eighteen inches deep on the ground, then had melted so rapidly that a torrent of water streamed down the narrow lanes and into people’s houses. The noise on ancient tiled roofs was horrendous. The storm came from nowhere and when it passed it was as though it had never been except for the devastation wrought.

Too late now to replant most things for this year. And yet, and yet, the weather of this region is (normally) so benign and the land is the rich alluvial soil of the Saône Valley; it can grow almost anything and quickly too.

We remember our cache of Borough Market borlotti beans and give them all to Markus to plant. It is barely a week later when we go to inspect and there they are – microscopic shoots – tiny seedlings – pushing up through the warm earth. In view of their preciousness they have been particularly well protected from the depredations of the field mice who view them as delicacies of the first order. We go each day to look and marvel.

So there you have it, whatever it might be: a metaphor perhaps for hope and the future; a reflection upon the working of small miracles; or maybe it is just the most satisfying way of using a gift of borlotti beans courtesy of Borough Market and the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery.

Di Murrell can be found at

Food and Landscape: Recording for Posterity

Symposiast Len Fisher introduces his talk ‘Global Warming and the Changing Global Food Landscape: The Need to Preserve Diversity’ at the 2017 Symposium

“Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?”

Well, one thing that future speakers might like to do for posterity is to record their talks and post them here on the symposium website for the interest of others who could not attend the symposium or the talk. It is something that I personally have been a bit nervous about doing, but this year I bit the bullet, handing my iPhone to a helpful audience member, whose name I unfortunately missed, and asking her to record the talk. She did a wonderful job, keeping the recording steady simply by rest the phone on a seat arm. I have put the video up on YouTube, and at Elisabeth Luard’s suggestion I am posting the link here:

The talk itself was also concerned with posterity, and addressed the problem of how we can best preserve and protect the global food landscape in the face of the effects of global warming. As other speakers at the symposium pointed out, diversity and the encouragement of traditional farming methods offer many advantages. The message of my own talk was simple: Diversity is also the key to promoting resilience in our food systems in the face of global warming.

It is a message that is backed by findings from the FAO, the World Economic Forum, and numerous other responsible bodies. It is also backed by scientific observation: the food and agricultural systems that recover most quickly from the effects of extreme weather events are those that exhibit the most diversity. In the talk, I outlined the scientific reasons why this should be the case.

Now all we need to do is to get politicians and other decision-makers to listen.

IMAGE: World Economic Forum, with permission.

Spotlight on a Meal: A Ploughman’s Lunch from Borough Market

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Stichelton cheese

Image credit: David Matchett
Symposiast Jane Levi considers the politics of a ploughman’s lunch

Every year for the last 35 years a group of food-obsessed scholars, cooks and others from all over the world have gathered together in an Oxford college and spent a joyous weekend thinking about, talking about and eating food. The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a charitable educational trust, will meet again over the weekend of 7th-9th July 2017, and this time one of their newest Trustees, David Matchett — who by day is the Market Development Manager at Borough Market — will be bringing lunch for his 250 fellow symposiasts with him.
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Spotlight on a Meal: Boyne Valley Banquet

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Dawn in the Boyne Valley

M áirtín Mac Con Iomaire introduces a banquet for the 2017 Symposium produced by the Boyne Valley Food Series, sponsored by Fáilte Ireland

What was the inspiration for this meal?

This meal is centered around the landscape and mythology of the Boyne Valley in northeast Ireland. When the Irish goddess Boann upset the Well of Inspiration, it boiled over in outrage. The river was born and took its name—Boyne—from her.
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Food and Landscape: The Olive Groves of Ayvalık

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The olive groves of Ayvalık

Symposiast Aylin Öney Tan traces the way in which olive groves have shaped a Turkish townscape

Does the landscape that surrounds us define our culture? My answer would be a definite yes. The natural environment dictates what we eat, what we produce, what we create, and even how we think. As someone who has a background in architecture and conservation practices, I am excited to see that heritage sites are now being evaluated as cultural landscapes; in some cases including agricultural landscapes as an integral part of heritage. Agriculture is an inseparable part of our heritage; as its name readily suggests, it is a part of our culture and basis of our existence in nature.
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Bottling Status

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rom Anonymous:’Kuchemaistrey’, Nuremberg, 1485.

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The Portable Sauces of Medieval Germany

Volker Bach continues his occasional series on German historical recipes.

The recipe collection of Master Hans, court cook at Wurttemberg (Maister Hannsen des von Wirtenberg Koch1) preserves a number of interesting and often enticing recipes and anecdotes. Written in 1460, this manuscript is one of the most important and most readable sources for the culinary world of late medieval German courts. Experts think its author was personal chef (koch zer kamer i.e. cook of the chamber) to Count Ulrich V of Wurttemberg (1433-1480), and the character of the recipes – rich, extravagant, often playful and luxurious – fits this interpretation. If it is true, Count Ulrich was well served.
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Food and Landscape: Inglourious Bustards

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Grouse butt on Marrick Moor

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Symposiast Thom Eagle considers whether game is a wild or a farmed food

There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and gentry is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to subjugate wildness into something amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my garden.
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