07 Dec 2017
Where the celery tastes like vanilla
Harald Gasser has specialized in the cultivation of old vegetables. At first, he was ridiculed as a “dark green fool”, but now Michelin Star chefs are begging for his curious tubers and roots.

We are on the Aspinger farm in Barbiano, above Ponte Gardena at the entrance to the Val Gardena. Three men stand in front of a wooden shed. Before them a sits small box on a chopping block. Again and again, the men take seemingly dried-up bulbs and shriveled-looking roots out of the box. Again and again, they stick pieces of them into their mouths. It is the beginning of December, late afternoon. You can see all the way down into the Isarco valley. The three are Hannes Gasser, Armin Mairhofer and Hannes Pignater. Gasser grew up on the Aspinger farm. He has been growing vegetables on the farm for over ten years. Mairhofer is Executive Chef at the ADLER Balance in Ortisei. Pignater runs the kitchen at the ADLER Mountain Lodge at the Alpe di Siusi. They came to Barbiano to see what Gasser had recently harvested.

Gasser is no ordinary vegetable farmer. The Aspinger farm also grows carrots, onions, Swiss chard and spinach. However, the slender man with the distinct face has specialized in the cultivation of old vegetable varieties. 400 different types grow here on one and a half hectares of land. Without pesticides, without chemicals, without machines, just with the work of his hands. At Gasser’s place sprouts sorrel beet, oat roots, hedge nettle bulbs, vegetable amaranth, friar’s beard, mountain spinach, cloddy peavine or abyssinian cabbage. Some of what Gasser grows was eaten in the Middle Ages. “My grandmother knew all this,” says Gasser, “but my mother’s generation has already forgotten about it.”

Gasser carries a plaid work jacket, a thick woolen cap pulled down low on his forehead. His hands are grey from working the earth, the skin calloused, soil under his fingernails. He reaches into the box once more and hands Mairhofer a small, bulbous brown root.

Mairhofer: ”What’s that?”

Gasser: “Chervil, turnip, also called great pignut.”

Mairhofer chews and says: “Tastes like parsley root with a carrot flavour.”

Pignater, while nibbling on a nutsedge mumbles: “Always very delicious.”

Gasser: “In the old days it was roasted and used as coffee substitute.”

A root network is revealed, that looks like a bunch of fat worms.

Gasser: “This is skirret, the European potato. I’ve heard if you roast it, then caramelize it and put it in red wine, it makes for a wonderful dessert.”

Pignater looks into the box: „“Why don’t we make minestrone out of the winter root vegetables?”
Mairhofer laments jokingly: “You stand all day in the kitchen slaving yourself and the best you can do is a minestrone out of root vegetables…”

Pignater: “Or a white creamy turnip soup…”

Gasser smiles and says: “Yes, my friends, simplicity is the new luxury.”
When he was 14 years old, Gasser joined the agricultural school for dairy and forestry. But as a young man Gasser decided against agriculture and instead trained as a social worker. Adopt a mountain farm with five dairy cows; moreover, one which no longer feeds a family? Thus Gasser worked with disabled and autistic children and soon found himself in an entirely different dilemma. The work was important, more a calling than a job. But the school life and the needs of the children did not match. Gasser became frustrated and slept badly. His wife said: “You need a hobby.” Gasser tried soccer. It did not work. Then a brilliant idea: a vegetable garden, that’s it.

He begged his mother for a piece of garden. Four by four meters. Not much. Nevertheless, he ordered 180 varieties of seeds from an association for the preservation and development of crop diversity and dove into his new mission. He did not know what he was doing. He seeded, like he calls it, “kribiskrabis” (all mixed up, messy). He had fun like never before. But the first harvest was sobering. Gasser did not recognize what he reaped; some of the roots and bulbs were not much bigger than a fingernail.

“You have to water,” his mother said.

“You have to spray,” his father said.

“You have to fertilize and spray abundantly,” said the consultants of the farmers’ association.

Gasser did not do any of it. He wanted to find out for himself what works and what does not. He fought with himself and his difficult vegetables. Year after year, he carried his harvest by the crate to the garbage dump or fed it to the pigs. But he didn’t give up. It took seven years for him to succeed with some varieties. His bulbs and roots indeed tasted wonderful, but looked shriveled. Or the leaves were eaten. No one wanted such a product. Appearance is now more important than taste. “It takes patience,” says Gasser. So he planted different varieties in one garden bed, and let the plants grow as they wanted. You just have to know, according to Gasser, which plants do well with each other. Plants are like people. Not everyone likes everyone. The rest is regulated by nature. The rule of thumb is: What matches on the plate also gets along in the field. Basil with tomatoes around. Or varieties that complement each other. A shallow root like red chard thrives just fine beside a deep root like a carrot. Potatoes and pumpkins together do not work; they are too similar. Extremes and opposites instead attract each other, like strawberries and garlic.

There were times in the village when Gasser was called “the dark green fool.” Until the top chefs discovered him. “We are always looking for producers with enthusiasm and idealism,” says Mairhofer: “In our job we are dependent on people like that.” Pignater was the first chef who made Gasser realize “what kind of treasures he had in his garden.” Gasser takes it seriously. “Hannes has the best taste, he has the palate in his mind.” More and more prominent chefs showed up and signed up. Gasser tried to respond to the demand. He planted the varieties, now separated and in bigger beds. The result was a total failure. “Pests, snails, beetles, fungus,” says Gasser: “I had every garden plague possible.” It was a lesson for him. Since then Gasser started relying once more on his inner voice. He now raises parts of his own seedlings. In 2015, he and his wife handled 14000 onions, 400 per hour. And of course everything is harvested according to his specifications. When the fruits are ripe and not when the market demands. Gasser lays his parsnips in sand for four months: “So they can develop their full aroma and their full sweetness.” No pumpkin leaves his farm before the months of December.

Pignater knows: “Even his celery tastes like vanilla, I have no idea how he does it.” At the end, the master chefs have to be grateful when they get hold of a box, of course everything “kribiskrabis” (mixed up), but still the same. Once, Gasser was looking for beet seeds on the Aspinger farm. He looked around for a bit and discovered a perennial.

Mairhofer: “Are those tomatoes?”

Gasser: “Those are black tomatoes.”

Mairhofer: “I want to have them.”

Gasser: “No, they are not good, the skin is too hard.”

“He has higher quality standards then we have,” says Pignater. What also fits is that Gasser resigned from the Association “Bioland”. Their rules for growing vegetables were too lax.

The message is clear. You get what he wants and not what others want. And as much as he wants to give, even though he could sell much more than he produces. Along with the chefs, renowned delicacy shops like Dallmayr in Munich are Gasser’s clients. But he does not want to produce more, even though some of his vegetables sell up to 25 Euros per kilo.

Pignater: “I have often told him, you have to ask at least 30 percent more.”

He does not want to do it. Gasser: “Money is not good for my karma.” How appropriate.

Some time ago, Gasser received a request from Dietrich Mateschitz, the richest man in Austria, chief of Red Bull. Mateschitz wanted Gasser to create and install a vegetable garden on his private island in the South Seas. You can just imagine how that story ended.



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