Feasting on the Health Benefits of Heritage Produce

By Jennifer Kingston

Learning about the foods that were once commonly grown and eaten in Central Virginia doesn’t just provide an opportunity to ensure that this part of our cultural heritage is conserved for generations to come, but it allows us to improve the quality of our diet. When our diets were based on unprocessed grains, vegetables, meat, dairy produce and fruit – before the advent of convenience foods – we were undoubtedly healthier; rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer were certainly lower. Here we consider some of the healthful properties of heritage food from Central Virginia.

Greengage plums

The cultivation of these orchard fruits has been in decline since the eighteenth century and instead damson plums tend to be favored. These are typically smaller than the red and purple plums we are more accustomed to and their distinctive green or yellow color gives them away. When ripe they are bursting with sweet juices and are considered to be amongst the best plums available, making them an ideal snack or item to incorporate into a dessert. Greengages are a great source of fiber, essential for good digestive health, but the soluble fiber they contain can also help to bring down cholesterol levels. Not just this, but they are rich in vitamin C, needed to support the maintenance and repair of all body tissues, as well as immune function. Additionally, Greengages provide vitamin A, which plays a role in eye health, allowing us to see in low light. Finally, they supply flavanoids, which are known to protect the heart, along with potassium which helps to lower blood pressure. The health giving properties of Greengages are so regarded that extracts of the fruit are available to supplement the diet in a similar way that the extracts of the vine cissus quadrangularis are available to buy.

Traditional apple varieties

If you have ever eaten a Buckingham or Albemarle Pippin, their flavor and texture are hard to beat, but more traditional varieties of apple also pack a greater nutritional punch. Research shows that the content of fiber, certain vitamins, minerals and plant components important to health tend to be higher in older varieties of fruit. Those people who have a higher intake of plant nutrients don’t just tend to have healthier hearts, but they also appear to be less likely to develop certain forms of cancer, dementia and digestive problems, as well as being less susceptible to infections.

Black walnuts

Although traditionally added to desserts, black walnuts are a healthful addition to cereal, natural yogurt and salads or can be eaten simply as a small handful between meals. For anyone who limits their intake of animal products, the addition of black walnuts to the diet makes a useful contribution to protein, iron for the prevention of anemia and omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to a reduced occurrence of heart disease and dementia and may support healthy joints. Nuts such as these are also one of the best sources of magnesium, which is needed for bone strength and normal nerve and muscle function.


They might not be used so much in cooking now, but go back a number of decades and the addition of Turkey Craw beans, Black Eye beans and Butter beans to soups, stews and other savory dishes was common place. These beans aren’t just a cheap form of low fat protein, but they are packed with B vitamins, which help the body to release energy from food, produce new tissue and the maintenance of healthy blood cells. Beans also make a useful contribution to daily iron and calcium intakes when other sources of these aren’t included so frequently in the diet. As with fruits, they are a good source of soluble fiber. Adding them to salads, serving them as a side dish or turning them into a vegetarian pâté can be other ways to add them more regularly into the diet, though there are a lot of baking recipes available that also use them as an ingredient.