A Tour of the World’s Food Plants

For the past month, I’ve been taking a trip around the world as I drink my morning coffee—the edible world, that is.

by Cherie Langlois
The book Cherie saw was too enticing to not purchase
Photo by Cherie Langlois
Reading the book Edibles takes me back to the markets of Venice, Italy.  

For the past month, I’ve been taking a trip around the world as I drink my morning coffee—the edible world, that is. Some time ago, while wiling away a drizzly afternoon in one of my favorite rainy-day sanctuaries (a book store), I found a wonderful book that I—a ravenous bookworm who also enjoys gardening and cooking—couldn’t resist. It’s called Edible:  An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants by National Geographic (Global Book Publishing, 2008), and it’s packed full of color photographs, botanical facts, historical tidbits and culinary tips for an astounding array of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, herbs and spices from all around the globe.  
Savoring this book slowly, like a delicious meal in a Paris restaurant, seemed like the thing to do, so I’m still only a little more than half way through it. (OK, I’ve been distracted off and on by other reading material.) Still, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the interesting things I’ve learned so far.

  1. According to Edible, the United States Supreme Court in 1893 ruled that a fruit refers to “a plant part usually eaten as an appetizer, dessert or out of hand.” To botanists, however, a true fruit is the mature plant ovary where the plant’s seeds are located.
  2. The Medlar, a tree fruit native to Persia once popular in Victorian England, has to sit around until it becomes nearly rotten before it’s soft enough to eat, a process known as “bletting.” Sounds yucky, but apparently it’s quite good.
  3. Hailing from South America, the Peanut Butter Fruit tree is a small, ornamental, tropical tree that produces fig-sized orange to red fruit that have a texture like peanut butter. 
  4. Melons, which consist of a whopping 95 percent water, have been grown in the Nile valley since ancient times. They were so ultra-popular with the European aristocracy that it was rumored people had died from bingeing on them.
  5. According to this book, vegetables are the “edible product of herbacious plants” which includes flower heads (broccoli), stems (kohlrabi), leaves (lettuce), tubers (potatoes) and fruit (pumpkin).     
  6. An essential staple crop in Africa, cassava plants produce starchy roots that are toxic unless cooked (sweet cassava) or specially processed (bitter cassava). What I want to know is, who figured out how to make these tubers safe to eat and how?
  7. The wild carrots that gave rise to our delicious modern cultivars came in every color but orange, purple being the most common hue. They tasted so strong and bitter the Greeks wouldn’t eat them at all.

Bon appétit!

~ Cherie

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