And Africa has plenty of suitable candidates to choose from, with yams (Dioscorea), the marama bean (Tylosema esculentum) and the so-called African potatoes in the genus Plectranthus chief among the underground plant foods available to hungry hominids. I'm happy to try any or all of the above should African readers of this blog care to get in touch with me.
One of the more intriguing root crops of African origin, is anchote (Coccinia abyssinica). It's grown at altitudes of around 2000 - 2500 metres in - you've guessed it - Ethiopia, not a million miles from the cradle of human evolution. It's a cucurbit, with the family's trademark trailing stems and tendrils.
I was discussing the relative paucity of edible roots in the family Cucurbitaceae with Emma Cooper, gardening writer, blogger and eminent podcaster, last year. She expressed surprise that any existed. I assured her that they did and being keen not to concede the argument, I decided to see whether I could finally locate and grow anchote.
To be fair, she had a point: one of the Cucurbitaceae's less appealing traits is that its members are often laced with cucurbitacins - nasty, bitter compounds which act as antifeedants. They really work. I have vivid recollections of tasting the root of buffalo gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima. I gingerly applied the cut surface of a root against my tongue; immediately my mouth was filled with the most retchworthy bitterness. Try as I might, I could not get rid of the taste. It was, I can say with complete authority, a once in a lifetime experience. This undesirable characteristic has been bred out of the cucumber and squash varieties we know and love, although the occasional bitter-flavoured throwback appears, to the consternation of the eater. Previous research indicated to me that anchote is consumed without laborious processing - a good thing as I didn't want to have to go to the trouble of hosing my mouth out after every morsel.
I planted them out in Kaukau Corner at the same time as the sweetpotatoes - late. Planting any earlier would have been pointless due to the exceptionally cold, wet and cheerless weather that had set in during April and mocked us throughout
spring and into the summer.
As a result, I was forced to pot them on at home and didn't manage to get them into the ground until July. The potted specimens had that slightly tired, yellowish, weather-beaten look by this stage - the equivalent of the muffled cries of protest that otherwise mute plants in my care tend to make when conditions are not to their liking. So when I finally wielded my trowel and gave them their freedom, I was hardly surprised that they didn't grow away rapidly.
More surprising was the amount of tunnelling the local vole population chose to carry out around and below them. On several occasions, I had to push the plants back into the ground after the voles left them high and dry on spoil heaps. I feared for their survival, I really did, but maybe the abundant rainfall and low temperatures kept them hydrated long enough for the roots to regrow. Good news, bad news, who can tell? To the right you can see them in their "prime". At least they eventually greened up a bit.
On a thoroughly filthy day in late November, I decided to lift the plants and see whether Cornwall 2012 had trounced the anchote like it had the sweetpotatoes. As I squelched in the hog wallow where the bed used to be, I reflected on the fact that some of the foliage was still alive, months after the sweetpotato leaves had succumbed. This I took to be a good omen in terms of cold tolerance. The stems were, however, pitifully short - not three metres as seemed to be quite common in descriptions of the crop in Ethiopia. No - more like 30 cm, at best.
I decided I'd better eliminate rambunctiousness from my lexicon, at least in association with anchote. And in that spirit, I stuck the fork into the soil and prepared myself to be utterly underwhelmed.
Remaining cautious, I carried out the buffalo gourd test, but no, my mouth did not pucker and neither did my gorge rise. Raw anchote tastes similar to a raw potato, with perhaps a hint of turnip. Unremarkable, but not unpleasant and in any case, anchote is eaten cooked, not raw.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Knowing nothing about anchote preparation, I boiled the root for about twenty minutes and then rubbed off the skin, which came away fairly easily.
So, I'm a happy hominid and glad that I managed to track down one of the world's more obscure root crops; it's particularly gratifying to extend the grasp of Radix into the highlands of Africa for the first time. I'll certainly grow anchote again and maybe the weather will be kinder and the voles less abundant when I make my next attempt. I wouldn't mind the roots being several times larger, either.
It turns out that Cornwall is not the only place outside Ethiopia where anchote cultivation is being attempted. I recently discovered that there's a grower in Wisconsin (and why not?) who is far more experienced than I am and he tells me that he gets his seeds from southern California; just like Homo sapiens, it seems that Coccinia abyssinica is ready and able to move beyond its ancestral home in Africa.