A Year Aboard the Ark of Taste

In every culture around the world, the passing of time is marked with rituals related to food and agriculture, from spring plantings and fall harvests to foraging during the rainy season foraging and preserving during the dry season. We celebrate special days and important occasions with favorite dishes, prepared from recipes passed down for generations, and whole communities come together for festivals that feature treasured foods. We are reminded that “good” food is seasonal food, sometimes worth waiting for all year long.


2014 has been a huge year for the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s campaign to bring attention to endangered foods around the world. Thanks to nominations throughout the year, and especially during Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, this year we have added over 500 forgotten foods to save to the Ark catalogue! Here’s a look back at 12 of this year’s additions, one for each month of the year…



In southern central Afghanistan, Shah Wali Kot dried yellow figs are popular for their sweet aroma and flavor, and are often served for celebrations such as the New Year and Muslim holidays. Today, though, the local fig variety and associated sun-drying method are at risk of being lost, because many of the fig orchards in the limited growing area were destroyed during Afghanistan’s civil war.



In the southern province of Yunnan, China, the Lunar New Year celebration wouldn’t be complete without Heqing ham, made by curing the hind legs of the Diannan small-eared pig in barley wine and salt. This product has a long history; the traditional production method dates back to the Ming Dynasty! Today, however, it is at risk of being lost due to the rise of modern convenience foods and fewer younger people learning the ham production methods.



India is famous for its tea, but few people know about hatey chia, or Darjeeling handmade tea. February and March in India brings harvest time for the tea buds and leaves, which are grown in unique, community managed agro-forestry systems or in agro-ecosystems along with a host of other crops, differing greatly from the commercially produced Darjeeling tea grown in monoculture plantations. It is fermented and dried, and has a typical smoky flavor. Handmade tea faces problems in its promotion. For example, it cannot be labeled with a Geographical Indication label, despite being a product of the Darjeeling Hills.



In the Sonoran Desert along the United States-Mexico border, cholla cactus flower buds are a food source for the local people, particularly the Tohono O’odham tribe. The buds are traditionally picked in the early spring, during su’am masad (“yellow month”). The cholla buds can be eaten roasted or boiled, or dried for later use. Although they are strongly connected to the culinary culture of the native people of the area, cholla buds are a very underappreciated and little known food, due to the erosion of traditional knowledge and the increase of modern Western diets and lifestyles in the region and the clearing of cholla cacti for land developments.



Shea tree caterpillars, or shitumu as they are called locally, begin to appear on Burkina Faso’s shea trees in late spring. They are harvested by women of the Bobo tribe in northwestern Burkina Faso and served boiled, fried, in soups or in salads. They can also be dried for later use. Shea tree caterpillars are an important local food source, but overharvesting threatens their future. Initiatives are in place to emphasize the importance of leaving some larvae to continue the reproductive cycle to maintain their presence in the area for future generations to use and enjoy.



There are hundreds of banana varieties in Indonesia, but in a limited area of Yogyakarta grows the raja bagus banana, used in celebrations and as an offering during marriage ceremonies. Because the bananas are well adapted to the area, they also symbolize for the couple the ability to adapt to different environments and roles. These tropical fruits can be stored for up to eight days, and although their peel will turn black, the fruit inside will still be fresh.



Galicica Mountain tea is a plant native to the Balkans that grows in dry areas at altitudes of over 1500 meters above sea level. Harvest takes place in summer, when the plant is in full bloom, and has been historically associated with the feast day of St. Naum (July 3). This aromatic tea also has a place in traditional medicine, and was even served in local hospitals. Today, Galicica Mountain tea is threatened by overharvesting in the wild and a decreased number of cultivators, with just three or four family farms in southwest Macedonia still growing the plant today.



The bussu (Neritina punctulata) is a small, snail-like, freshwater shellfish found in the rivers of Portland, in northeastern Jamaica. Many different preparations are part of the traditional diet of the Maroons, the local indigenous people. In August, local festivals take place that celebrate both Jamaican culture and this shellfish, with typical bussu dishes served and traditional drumming, dancing and chanting featured. Irresponsible overharvesting and chemical residues are two issues negatively affecting the bussu population today. It is also being displaced in its natural habitat by introduced invasive species.



In much of Italy, fall marks the start of the grape harvesting and winemaking season. The Scimiscià

 or Çimixâ vine has been widely grown in the area of Genoa, along Italy’s northwestern coastline, since ancient times. Its sugar content and acidity are normally higher than other locally cultivated vines like Vermentino and Bianchetta Genovese. Production of Scimiscià, however, is very limited, and this variety has been displaced by international grape varieties with higher yields that have more name recognition among consumers.



Throughout October, oasis rice is harvested from the oases of Egypt’s Western Desert area. This rice was traditionally used for big events, like weddings, when animals would be slaughtered and the rice would be cooked in the fat. Bedouin families harvest the rice and each take a share to mill manually, while the rest of the rice is processed in a facility in the Delta region of Egypt. Once more widespread in the Western Desert, today issues of water scarcity are affecting its cultivation.



South of the equator in Argentina, tortora, a perennial swamp grass, flowers in the spring and summer. Totora pollen is collected by harvesting and drying male flowers. Dry totora pollen is very rich in nutrients, especially protein and vitamin C, and should be consumed raw (often mixed with other foods) to best preserve its nutritional properties. Totora pollen has been used locally for over 5000 years by the Toba, Mocoví and Wichí populations, but it is not a commercially sold product, and its use is decreasing among younger generations.



The Soester yellow butter turnip from the central Netherlands has a very specific growing season. According to a Dutch rhyme (“Wie knollen wil eten, moet Sint Laurens niet vergeten / En als het kindje Jezus is geboren, hebben de knollen hun smaak verloren”), for their best flavor they should be planted before August 10th (St. Lawrence’s Day) and harvested before December 25th (Christmas). They do not store well, and so should be eaten soon after harvesting. This variety was eventually abandoned in the mid- to late-1800s, replaced by larger, higher yielding varieties. Around 2000, a local farmer found a bag of seeds in the attic of his father’s farm, which turned out to be the butter turnips from the old days. Today the turnips are being grown again in Soest.

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