For the last 15 years, Dan Saladino has been traversing the planet, tracking down the stories behind some of the world’s rarest foods. On his first deep dive, the food journalist and presenter on BBC Radio 4’s "The Food Programme" headed to the land of his paternal ancestors, Sicily, to hear the tales behind the vanilla orange, a local delicacy. But what Saladino thought was going to be an uplifting piece about a rare orange variety was one fraught with tales of farming duress, as direct competition from monoculture varieties like navels and Valencia oranges was driving the vanilla orange toward extinction.
On this same trip, Saladino learned about the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste, a growing catalog of the world's most endangered foods. “What really grabbed me about this catalog and these foods,” says Saladino, “was that each entry wasn’t just a description of a disappearing genetic resource, but it also took me into history and places that I had no idea existed. Every entry in the catalog transported me to a different place and time.”
In his new book, Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, Saladino highlights many of these foods, from American Plains bison to lambic beer in Belgium, not only making the argument that we are in danger of losing a culinary diversity that is good for both our health and our planet, but also tracing the origins of this diversity and how it all came to be. “The story of these foods, and the way in which they’re presented in the book,” says Saladino, from wild foods associated with hunters and gathers, to cereals, vegetables, meats, and more, “is really the story of us and our own evolution.”
Prior to colonization, murnong—a.k.a the yam daisy—was a prominent ingredient in the diets of many Aboriginal tribes people throughout what’s now southeastern Australia. This subterranean radish-like root grew prolifically across the grassy hillsides of Victoria, often blanketing them in thick fields of yellow flowers that resembled dandelions. Both juicy and nutritious, murnong provided year-round sustenance to Aboriginal peoples who ate it both raw and cooked for tens-of-thousands of years.
Murnong thrived in direct sunlight, so during the dry season Indigenous Aboriginals would light fields on fire to clear away any dead vegetation and leave these underground tubers untouched, with any remaining ash acting as fertilizer. They would also use digging sticks, or “yam sticks,” to gather murnong from the fields, an act that would separate and scatter the tubers and allow them to grow copiously. “You could argue that this was a semi-domesticated plant root,” says Saladino, “the Aboriginals’ equivalent to a staple crop. Imagine their horror when European colonists first arrived and allowed their animals to spread throughout the landscape.”
It turns out that the colonists’ livestock, especially sheep, loved murnong, and were given free range over the fields. By the 1860s, the tuberous root was nearly extinct, relegated to cemeteries and other unfrequented side plots. Today, murnong is making a slow comeback through the likes of Aboriginal community gardens and the country’s celebrated chefs such as Ben Shewry, who incorporates the plant into dishes at his modern Australian restaurant, Attica.
Olotón Maize—Oaxaca State, Mexico
There are thousands of maize varieties around the globe, and 59 native varieties in Mexico alone. One in particular is olotón, a bizarre type of corn that grows high among the rugged eastern highlands of Mexico’s Oaxaca State, in a small village belonging to its Indigenous Mixe people. It’s prepared and eaten like most other types of corn, but olotón can reach upwards of 20 feet tall, and has a highly unusual root system that allows it to get its nitrogen both from the ground and from the air. Unlike other maizes, Olotón has a system of aerial roots that sprout outward from its stalk and produce a strange dripping mucus, one that houses a complex nitrogen-fixing microbiome that can transform nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into self-fertilization. “So mind-blowing,” says Saladino, “the interaction between the plant, the air, and the microbes. Here’s a genetic resource that could be beneficial to all of us, and it’s one that to me represents the endangered foods that we’ve ignored or destroyed and now realize that we need.”
Geechee Red Pea—Sapelo Island, Georgia, USA
The Atlantic coastal areas of the American South—including its dozens of barrier Sea Islands like Sapelo and other parts of the Lowcountry—are home to the Gullah-Geechee, descendants of West and Central Africans who were brought over as slaves from their homeland and put to work on the local plantations. Due to the remoteness of these plantations, these slaves were able to maintain many of there Indigenous traditions. This includes sustainable rice farming, a vital component of which is the Geechee red pea—a rotation crop that adds nitrogen back to the soil between plantings. This small, ruby-colored heirloom legume has a rich flavor and an even richer history. It’s a main ingredient in the traditional Gullah dish, “Reezy Peezy,” made with unripe peas and Carolina Gold rice. However, with new development encroaching on the Sea Islands, and many Gullah-Geechee descendants moving away to cities to find work, their food, culture and traditions are in danger of disappearing.
“I met Gullah-Geechee descendant, chef, and farmer [and now cookbook author] Matthew Raiford at a Slow Food festival in Turin, Italy,” says Saladino, “and soon the whole world was opening up to me through this tiny pea. So much had been learned over thousands of years by successive generations of farmers. Now, many people of African heritage who’d left the land in the 20th century, like Raiford, are reclaiming that expertise and knowledge. It's this knowledge that we need.”
Skerpikjøt—Faroe Islands, Denmark
Tucked away in the northern Atlantic Ocean, the Faroe Islands are a remote archipelago where sheep outnumber the residents nearly two-to-one, winds are fierce, and there’s hardly a tree in sight. Without access to firewood, the Faroe’s inhabitants have had to find another way to cure meat. The result: skerpikjøt, a type of dried and fermented mutton made from the shanks and legs of sheep that’s a local delicacy, although one that’s endangered—as the country’s continuing economic growth has allowed for increasing outside shipments of chicken, pork and beef.Skerpikjøt is preserved in specially built wooden sheds called hjallur, which have sides composed of vertical slats that allow space for winds—and the salt that it carries with it—to blow in from the sea. For the next five-to-nine months, the salty air coats the hanging meat. As the carcasses ferment they also start to decay. It’s a sort of “controlled rotting” that provides the meat with a sharp taste and distinct pungent smell. “It's too clever to be invented,” Saladino says. “All the humans needed to do was just kind of observe and understand what nature could provide.” Once the fermentation slows and the meat becomes drier and firmer, it also mellows out in flavor. At this point, it’s ready to eat.
In Eating to Extinction, Saladino describes the taste as, “sweet, salty and musty with a kick of acid.” It’s like fine wine. “Appreciation,” he writes, “comes with experience.”
From the Sea
“It’s probably the most beautiful food in the book,” says Saladino, referring to shio-katsuo, a heavily salted and dried skipjack tuna that’s believed to be the origins of katsuobushi—a more prevalent type of dried and smoked bonito tuna. Today, shio-katsuo lives-on solely in and around Nishiizu, a fishing town on Japan’s Izu Peninsula. Because it’s used as an offering to Sinto deities, its preparation requires careful and delicate expertise. In fact, Nishiizu resident Yasuhisa Serizawa is shio-katsuo’s last-surviving producer.
After salting the fish both inside and out for more than two weeks, Serizawa then decorates it with what Saladino describes as “golden bristles of rice stalks.” This involves a skillful threading of these stalks so that they sprout from the fish’s mouth and through its gills, as well as adorn its body.
Once the offering ceremony is complete, the shio-katsuo can then be eaten, either thinly sliced or made into flakes to sprinkle atop rice and vegetable dishes. “With just a tiny amount of grating it packs this punch of umami and transforms any dish,” says Saladino.
While Southeast Asians were the first to domesticate bananas as early as 8000 B.C.E, a second wave of domestication occurred much more recently (about 2,000 years ago) in Africa. Known as “East African Highland” bananas, this domesticated subgroup consists of approximately 200 individual cultivars, each with its own cultural role and culinary uses. One in particular is the kayinja, a versatile banana grown in central Uganda that’s used to make juices and beers. It’s also used in traditional marriage ceremonies, in which the groom presents the bride’s family with a Kayinja beer he’s brewed himself.
The bulk of the international banana trade is based around the Cavendish, a low-priced and sterile, cloned banana that’s extremely susceptible to a deadly fungus called Tropical Race 4 (TR4). However, most banana varieties co-evolve with the fungal diseases that try to take them down, each one trying to outmaneuver the other. In Uganda, where bananas are a staple food, local farmers are exploring both the monoculture model of cultivating a single crop and another promoting genetic diversity.
“Which way does Africa go?” says Saladino. “With the genetically edited type of banana? Or—as so many of the other stories in the book reveal—using traditional methods of farming with lots of diversity, so that you can find a way to defend your crops from being wiped out from disease.”
Salers is a type of raw milk cheese that dates back 1,000 years. It’s one of the world’s oldest surviving cheeses and, as Saladino writes, “one of the most grueling to make.” Produced only in the high, isolated reaches of south-central France’s Auvergne region, Salers cheese utilizes the milk of Salers cows, mountain foragers whose population has noticeably reduced over recent years. Perhaps because there are just 10 or so producers still using this cattle breed, one that adheres to a very strict grazing protocol that only occurs from April 15 to November 15 annually.
Each spring, farmers accompany their cattle farther up the mountains—at 2,788 feet in altitude or more—where the latter can feed on thick and fertile grasses. For the next six months, the farmers live in small stone cottages and collect the cows’ milk twice daily, morning and night. They then use the raw milk to make Salers, a semi-hard cheese that’s a rich yellow color and has a taste that’s both nutty and intense, though this can range depending on the length of the cheese’s fermentation. “This cheese is made without a starter culture because the milk is so alive, microbial,” says Saladino. “It’s interesting that for so long, we’ve done everything we can to kill off bugs and bacteria, yet now we understand how valuable they are to our health.”
To many Georgians, winemaking is a spiritual process, and drinking, writes Saladino, is “a way of communing with God.” From the extreme diversity of the country’s grapes to the way in which wines are stored, viticulture in Georgia is unlike anywhere else on the planet. Take qvevri: these ancient terracotta vessels can hold between 13 and 1,000 gallons of wine, depending on their size, and are used for the fermentation and aging of traditional Georgian wine. Local winemakers fill each of these egg-shaped pots—pre-dating barrels by several thousand years—with grape juice, skins and stalks, and then bury them in the ground, where steady temps allow the wine to develop and ferment slowly year-round. The qvevri’s oval shape allows fermentation to occur evenly, and at the bottom of the vessel is a pointed cone, which collects any leftover pumice. This process, which Georgians believe in vehemently, results in a pristine wine. “The 20th century, with Communism and the top-down control over what was being grown in the Soviet Union, heavily influenced the disappearance of diversity,” says Saladino, which led to the endangerment of Georgia’s wines, as well as its wine making processes. “Thankfully, there are people out there who are carrying on the traditions.”
Ancient Forest Pu-Erh Tea—Xishuangbanna, China
Pu-erh is a rare, fermented tea, and making it from wild tea leaves that grow in an isolated mountain region in China’s southwestern Yunnan province is a lengthy, involved process. First, its leaves are sun-dried on wooden racks to wither and darken. They’re then cooked over hot fire to prevent full oxidation, and rolled and kneaded to disperse any excess moisture. The leaves are formed into solid cakes that ferment for months, and sometimes years. As it ages, its flavors shift and evolve, displaying characteristics of the ancient forest where it originates. These include the forests of Xishuangbanna, one of Yunnan’s three main pu-erh regions, as well as one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on the planet. “Unfortunately,” says Saladino, “history overwhelms this story with post-Mao effects and a lot of destruction, including the rubber industry. And then, what should be a positive thing of reappraisal and new value as more people are discovering pu-erh becomes one in which it's being overexploited, and it seems to be the Indigenous people who are losing out in this as well.”
Authentic—though endangered—pu-erh uses a minimalist approach to processing, meaning you can taste everything from the soil and its nutrients to—some say—all that the tree has endured and experienced. One pu-erh might taste earthy and mushroom-like, another slightly smokey. No two pu-erhs are the same.
Criollo Cacao—Cumanacoa, Venezuela
Creamy, sweet and oh-so-aromatic, criollo is an extremely fine, high-quality cacao that ancient Mayans considered to be the food of the gods. It’s the world’s rarest type of chocolate, representing less than 5 percent of the cocoa production on the planet. It lacks bitterness. And it’s very difficult to grow. The criollo tree is native to Central America, and is cultivated only in rainforest regions of Central and South America where the climate is humid and temperatures range between 65 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes areas of Venezuela, where criollo beans thrive.
Many Venezuelans, including chef, entrepreneur and chocolatier María Fernanda Di Giacobbe, believe criollo can be the answer to the country’s economic crisis. “Here is this natural resource,” says Saladino, “that long after Venezuela’s oil is gone will hopefully be there providing an income in local economies across the country, as well as a renewed sense of pride. María Fernanda sees the potential of this resource, and that Venezuela has the expertise and ability to deliver the finest quality of cacao worldwide.”