Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/20/07)

The Altai Shan, the golden mountain range, is a complex series of mountains rising in the Gobi Desert and descending into the West Siberian Plain. Traveling southeast to northwest, it threads its way through Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. Its highest peak is 15,000 feet. A remote neck of the woods, the Altai Shan was until the 19th century terra incognita for westerners. On their maps, medieval cartographers would have designated such unknown places as the Altai Shan with the inscription, “hic sunt dracones” (here are dragons.)

Yet, it’s the origin of a prized tomato, Sasha’s Altai (Lycopersicon esculentum), which at one time fetched $5.00 per single seed in Australia. But, in a sense, one shouldn’t be surprised since tomatoes originated with the Incas in the remote high country of the Andes where, growing wild, they are more a berry than a fruit. Indeed, the word “tomato” is a corruption of the Inca word tomatl. From Peru the Conquistadores took the tomatl to Mexico, thence to Spain, and then to Italy. Finally, the ubiquitous tomatl made its way to Siberia and Sasha Stavrov’s garden in the Altai Shan where it was discovered by Bill McDorman of http://www.seedstrust/ in Cornville which is just a few miles down slope from Sedona.

A horticultural explorer, Bill McDorman stalks and hunts seeds sans gun but with camera. On one of his heirloom seed hunting expeditions, Bill ventured into the Siberian city of Irkutsk on the shores of Lake Baikal looking for tomato seeds. In short, Bill is a guy who takes his seeds seriously, especially his tomato seeds, else why would he find himself smack dab in the middle of nowhere looking for tomato seeds. Only a true hunter would venture into terrae incognitae, searching for descendants of the tomatl amongst the dracones.

The reason was quite simple. After the Communist Revolution of 1917, Russia had been cut off from outside horticultural influences for 70 years. One of the influences from which it was protected was the horticultural genetic engineering of western capitalistic corporations. So in effect, rather than the artificial selection of hybrid tomatoes, there was 70 years of natural selection, producing the best non-hybrid tomatoes. In many ways the Soviet Union had been a hermit kingdom run by privileged class of corrupt political hacks commonly called apparatchiks. However, with the coming of glasnost (transparency) under Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 all of Soviet horticulture began to open up.

For Bill McDorman this meant open season for heirloom seeds. Siberians are avid gardeners, and he figured that with 2 million highly-competitive gardeners he could have a field day hunting for the best non-hybrid vegetables and tomatoes. He was looking for that right combination of acidity and sweetness, in short, a sophisticated, complex taste.

While in Siberia he collected sixty different kinds of tomato seeds. On one occasion a smiling man with sparkling blue eyes came out of a crowd, telling him about his deliciously nonpareil tomatoes, and claiming they were “the best tomatoes in all of Siberia.” He said he would walk home to fetch him some of his own seeds. He didn’t come back. Three days later as Bill was waiting to board his airplane for the flight home, he burst through the crowd with his seeds carefully wrapped in an old newspaper. Surprised, Bill wondered why he had taken so long. Bill’s translator said that there were no roads where Sasha lived and that he had to walk home, some 22 miles into the Altai Shan, a forty-four mile walk altogether.

What Sasha brought back were the seeds of Sasha’s Altai tomato, a thin-skinned, scarlet-red, slightly flattened, luscious tomato with a delightfully complex taste. Maturing in a short 55-60 days, it’s a fit for both the Altai Shan and the Colorado Plateau and Flagstaff. Along with its companion Siberian, the Galina (Lycopersicon esculentum,) Bill McDorman struck gold amongst the golden Altai Shan.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007