As its author explains with barely concealed dismay, the loss of a huge percentage of the UK's traditional vegetable varieties is down to Brussels making it illegal, during the 1960s and 1970s, to sell seeds or vegetable cultivars (varieties of plants that have been created through cultivation) that were not on the national list of the UK or other EU countries.
This being a prohibitively expensive exercise for gardeners, especially if the cultivar is not commercially viable (which many heritage varieties are not), it was inevitable that we'd lose not only individual cultivars, but also significant genetic diversity. This is still the case even if the UK now has a Vegetable Conservation Society, with a reduced cost for listing a cultivar. The habit of grubbing out orchards, too, has meant that many ancient fruit varieties have also withered on the vine, as it were.
"What is shocking is that Europe has lost perhaps 2000 cultivars since the 1970s, and in America the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation estimates that 96% of the commercial vegetable cultivars available in 1903 are now extinct," writes Toby Musgrave, a horticulturalist and garden historian who has spent several years researching this book after being commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society to provide the text for Clay Perry's photographs.
But it has to be said that much of the blame for diminishing choice rests with us, the consumers, and our love of supermarkets. This, argues Musgrave, has encouraged breeders to create new cultivars with a range of characteristics our grandparents would never have considered necessary: ease of harvest, uniformity of size and shape, longevity of shelf life and the widest possible appeal of flavour. "They have their uses, of course, but should be grown alongside rather than instead of heritage varieties."
He warns that modern monocultures run the risk of repeating the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, which was so devastating because when the sole variety succumbed, so did the entire crop. "There is a high risk that the same could happen again with the monocrops grown all over the world, and indeed it already has," he says. "In America in 1972 several cultivars of sweet corn with similar genetic makeup succumbed to blight, with losses up to 50%. It is therefore imperative for future diversity that we lose no more cultivars." In other words, make sure you demand more than just stripey tomatoes and knobbly potatoes next time you're food shopping.
So, wrists slapped and duly chastised, let's read on. Or rather, let's gaze on, in speechless wonder. Clay Perry's photographs are truly exquisite. Recreating the style of 16th-century Spanish still-life paintings to reflect the traditional nature of his endangered subjects, he shoots on black backgrounds and in such breathtakingly sharp close-up focus that such humble produce as tomatoes, beetroots, carrots, plums, quinces, squashes and broad beans are rendered utterly beguiling.
Some items – blue-purple President plums, Lord Derby gooseberries, Chantenay Red Cored carrots, Romanesco cauliflower – are simply laid artfully on wooden planks or peer softly from gloomy black hinterlands; others, like a clutch of Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou shallots, or a Primo cabbage, or a bunch of Reed's Red Early rhubarb, have been hung on string, medieval larder-style, to bring them forward into the frame. With these techniques Perry has achieved his aim: of conveying his subjects' age, their beauty, their vulnerability and a strong sense of his own tender feelings towards them. You can't help but look at these precious wonders of nature with new eyes, and empathise.
Sadly, his collection of apples doesn't include the medieval monastic survivor Melrose, thought to have originated in the Cistercian monastery of that Scottish Borders town; or the 1880s blood-red, sweet Bloody Ploughman from Carse of Gowrie. It's not made clear why they are not here. But Musgrave's painstakingly researched and loftily academic text (he cites Herodotus and Pliny the Elder in his extensive list of sources) at least mentions them.
The Swedish turnip or rutabaga (B. napobrassica), introduced to Scotland in 1781 or 1782 from Gothenburg in Sweden, presumably could not be sourced for inclusion. But there's a so-sharp-you-can-touch-it shot of Pentland Brig kale, in cultivation in rural Scotland by 1777. Musgrave explains how in Scotland kale was such a fundamental component of the diet that 'kail' was used as a generic term for dinner, and that on the Western Isles most properties had a walled 'kailyard', a term subsequently used disparagingly for a group of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Scottish authors including JM Barrie, with their sentimental, nostalgic descriptions of rural Scottish life.
I was quite surprised at the relatively small section on potatoes, though enjoyed reading that exactly when it arrived in Britain, and who brought it, remains a matter of debate and legend. Contrary to popular myth, says Musgrave, the "potatoes" brought back in 1564 from "the coast of Guinea and the Indies of Nova Hispania" by the English slave trader John Hawkins were in fact sweet potatoes. The other main claimant to the title of introducer is Sir Walter Raleigh, who allegedly planted them on his estate at Myrtle Grove near Cork in Ireland in 1589 and then presented tubers to Elizabeth I. Yet, already in 1569 Mary, Queen of Scots had complained that the garden at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire where she was held prisoner was "a potato patch ... fitter to keep pigs in".
In Britain, discrimination against the potato continued well into the 18th century, particularly in Scotland, where potatoes were a rarity until the 1740s. One reason it took time for the potato to become accepted was because its stems, leaves and green tubers are poisonous if eaten. Thus the potato came to be regarded as an evil plant ... some even considered it the "forbidden fruit" of the Garden of Eden. But the Shetland Black can trace its origins to 1588.
Perry writes that he hopes this book will go some way to convince people that they should not lose this precious heritage. Its hessian cover is deceptive. But even if its fate is to languish decorously on the urban coffee table, the pull of his work will surely help spread the word.
Although the mulberry has always been a popular tree, it has never been widely planted only for its fruit. There is one exception, and that was King James I's attempt to create an English silk industry through the planting of white mulberry trees, whose leaves are the preferred food of the silkworm. This ended in a heroic horticultural failure. The King wrote to the Lord Lieutenants of the English counties in 1607-1608 instructing them to plant mulberry trees. As many as 100,000 were planted, but the King had mistakenly ordered the planting of the black mulberry, upon which the silkworm will not feast. It was an expensive mistake. James' own orchard of four acres, established in 1608 on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, cost him the huge sum of £1935.