If you say “heirloom” to me, I think of my grandmother’s 100-year old Georg Jensen sterling silver brooch, but these days, the word “heirloom” has become more closely associated with rare garden plants or animals.
According to the Seed Savers Exchange (a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving rare plant varieties), an heirloom plant is any garden plant that has a history of being passed down for generations.
Some experts say to be classified as an heirloom, a plant variety must be at least 50 to 100 years old; however, everyone agrees that heirloom fruits and vegetables are unique plant varieties which are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties we enjoy today.
Now, there isn’t an official definition for “heritage animals,” (The word heritage is used to describe animals while heirloom is used for plants.), but if a breed of cattle, poultry or pork is referred to as heritage, it must have specific genetic traits and be raised on an organic or sustainable farm.
According to the Sustainable Table, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed. Fortunately, a growing number of sustainable farmers are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising heritage or heirloom animal breeds and crops. And these are what have begun to appear on restaurant menus and at local farmers markets around the nation.
Today, depending upon where you live, you might be able to find heirloom produce and heritage meats in gourmet markets; however, it’s my hope that, as consumers begin to demand these responsibly and carefully grown ingredients, they will become more accessible to everyone and appear at local grocers.