Mr. Gasser, you once said that a healthy diet isn’t all that important and that food must only, to quote you, “taste good”. However, you have one of the most diverse and healthiest fruit and vegetable plantations in the world. How does this go together?
I was never a health junkie and I will never be one. You can see that by the tobacco I have lying here (smiles). But my wife is, contrary to me, a nutrition expert. I think Petra knows everything there is to know about healthy and sustainable food. I am interested in just one thing: the taste!
What does a good taste entail?
Either you like something or you don’t. If the soil has been overly watered or overly fertilised, that can spoil the taste of the food. What I want to say is that vegetables should grow as god intended them to, without artificial additives and fertilisers. Otherwise you will have everything tasting like disposable industrial trash.
How do you mean?
For example, once I gave Petra the “poison test”.
Excuse me? What did you do?
I gave all of our 16 carrot varieties a good amount of artificial fertiliser. Before this, Petra could guess all 16 carrot varieties in a blind tasting. After the fertiliser, she couldn’t guess one single variety. The carrots were everything but natural.
What did you learn from this?
To avoid all artificial supplements in the garden, the field as well as the woods. I firmly believe that a naturally grown ecosystem is healthier, more sustainable and more productive than any other.
How does this apply to day to day life? For instance, what did you have for breakfast this morning?
I always start the day with one of our homemade breads, topped with honey and butter. Then there was apricot compote with muesli for the second course. For the third course, ham and eggs. This covers it until about 10 o’clock.
Only until 10 o’clock?
I am out the whole day, in the fresh air, in all weather conditions. Try this once, you’ll see how exhausting it is! At 10 o’clock latest I need a piece of cake from my wife or a nice piece of bread with ham or cheese.
For lunch you must then have something lighter?
Yes. Currently the salads are growing really well. We have them for lunch and dinner.
With a piece of meat maybe?
Only from our own production and not that often, maybe two times a week. As a self-sustainable farm, we can anyway only ‘buy’ from ourselves. For example, we have dwarf zebus, turkeys, chickens and ducks.
What do you have to source externally?
Not much. Dairy products, rice and pasta. Not much more. When I go shopping, I also get myself a lot of chocolate. Preferably the really sweet one. I am a sort of a nougat-type.
How do you teach your twins what healthy food is?
You should better ask how chefs deal with the harsh critique of our twins (laughs)! Noah in particular has a very sophisticated palate. Whenever we go out to a restaurant, he immediately knows the quality of the produce served.
Recently I took a pint of milk to my mother. I served it to her and Noah for breakfast. After just one sip, Noah said “This is not our organic milk, I won’t drink this!”. He really has an extraordinary sense of taste. When Petra’s not sure whether the mozzarella’s still good or not, she asks him. He is probably one of the rare people that knows a few hundred fruit and vegetable varieties by both sight and taste.
Where does he get this from? You’re like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s book, The Perfume. The Frenchman had the perfect smell, and you an extraordinary palate…
Wait a minute… where did you hear that my palate is extraordinary?
The top chefs from the area buy produce from you. From Norbert Niederkofler to Herbert Hintner, simply everybody.
I get what you’re saying. However, I am always on the lookout for premium products. Just recently I heard about a Chilean shrub that should be unbelievably delicious. This is driving me insane, I want to have it! No, I must have it!
Where do you do your research, on the internet?
There is nothing there. Here it goes something like, ‘maybe someone knows someone who knows someone’. In other words, things like this are pretty secretive.
This doesn’t sound like you’re talking about rare vegetable varieties, but more like illegal substances.
Well when you put it this way, I do in fact sound like a drug dealer (laughs). But our customers keep coming back. Furthermore, they find it hard to go back to anything else. You get industrial produce everywhere. My customers get varieties that can’t be found anywhere else. Once you’ve had a feathered rocket salad, a ‘strawberry-spinach’ or a Japanese water-pepper - you will not want to have anything else.
On your website it says that you “cultivate long forgotten fruit and vegetable varieties in order to hinder their extinction”. But when dinosaurs are extinct, that’s the end.
I’ll keep running around the world until I met someone who knows what an earthnut pea is. I won’t give up before then. Once I found a woman who sold me 200 seeds of earthnut pea for 200 euros(!). Low and behold, two days later they arrived and it made my day. It was only yesterday that during a guided tour through the garden, I gave out the earthnut pea for a tasting. A woman said that she already knew the taste.
That can’t be.
I am certain that we have all this information saved somewhere in our genetic material. That is why we all know varieties such as Oxalis, the sunchoke or a jicama. You would probably need to google these, but you would definitely immediately recognise the taste. (Harald scrambles away and comes back with a few leaves.) Try this!
Oh my, that is unbelievably spicy! Is that pepper?
Japanese water-pepper. Much better that the usual one. Normal pepper contains lots of toxins, but the Japanese water-pepper not.
Do chefs come and ask you something along the lines of, “Harald, I need some more of that Japanese water-pepper”?
When they know what it is, then yes. Many chefs still don’t know what varieties are available here at the Aspinger Farm. Then there are chefs who know exactly what they want, but they don’t have the slightest idea how to use the product. For us it’s an inspiring and never-ending art. It inspires me to do something new every day. Like the Matthiola for example.
What is that?
It is a cruciferous vegetable with beautiful blossoms. It really looks impressive on the plate. Take a look at these. These here have a sweet, almost exotic smell. If you were to bite into them now, it would be very spicy. There are, however, varieties that we men shouldn’t eat so much of.
Why is that?
They have a reverse effect of Viagra. If you were to have too much of it, then there would probably be no sex today.
How do you taste all the fruits and vegetables?
Always raw and directly in the field. The question is always, is it enjoyable? Just in case, Petra has the number of the Poison Control Centre in Milan saved on her phone.
Did she need it?
Yes, once with a tuber that an acquaintance of mine from Belgium had recommended me. I bit into it and then I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards. The thing was maybe spicy. One of my last thoughts was: “Harald, why are you ears smoking?”. As I became unresponsive, Petra quickly called the centre in Milan. They told her that I would fully regain my consciousness in a few minutes. Luckily, I did.
Do all chefs buy a lot of produce at once?
I cultivate targeted products for each chef individually. But that also involves the restaurant accepting a large variety of produce.
Why is that?
Because I cultivate a mixed culture. I plant natural enemies right next to each other. For example, when I sow Swiss chard directly next to the celeriac, the two fight each other like crazy. As a result, the celeriac is stronger and the Swiss chard weaker - allowing me to offer a mini-Swiss chard. And when all plant families are included such as cruciferous types, beets, onions, carrots, tubers and flowers, then all the problems that are typical for monocultures do not occur. Over the years I developed a system that works. In this way I exactly know which ‘neighbour’ fits to the other, supports it while it grows and also protects it from disease.
Could you please give me an example?
I plant basil in between our tomatoes against mildew and lavender between cabbage varieties against cabbage flies.
Which types don’t go together?
Pumpkin next to potato. Both require a large amount of nutrients, but neither would get their share. Take two ravenously hungry people and put a plate of food between them. Difficult on the long run and just creates a lot of stress.
And what happens if a chef doesn’t accept a diverse range of products and only picks and choses?
Then they don’t get to purchase here any longer. I for example declined Christian Jürgens, a top German chef. A partnership should consist of a relationship where both parties are satisfied. In this case, I wasn’t anymore, that’s why I pulled the plug.
Where can chefs inform themselves about the daily offers?
Very simply, through my mailing list. This week we have produce such as mountain leek, amaranth sprouts, ice plant, buck’s horn plantain, liquorice marigold, asparagus salad, rocket salad, ‘wasabino’, Afghan rucola, Roman sorrel, red ribbon sorrel, ‘austernkraut’, tree spinach, bronze fennel, garlic mustard, banana mint plant, as well as many types of radishes, wasabi rucola and chestnut.
They are able to thrive because you keep snails as pets, isn’t this right?
My mother always taught me that pests should be fought. For me, this wasn’t the way to go. What does a snail want? To eat! Why wouldn’t I give it something to eat then? Early on I started to sow 1500 pieces of industrial salad.
Snails like to feed solely on perished plants.
How does this relate to the salad?
Due to the industrially treated hormones, to the snails the salad smells dead, or rotten. Next to my plots, I cultivated a whole field of industrial salad. Since then, the snails let my salad alone.
That’s very smart.
As we all have one earth only, we should together find solutions how to best live together. If we kill or poison the snails, they would just lay more eggs. But when I offer them an alternative, which in turn allows us all to live in peace, that is the best solution. After all, the snail has one task to accomplish in this world, to feed on perished plants. By no means should we take this away from it.
What are you afraid of?
Hail, hail, hail. You have to understand that on 5000 square metres of land, a gross production of roughly 50.000 euros grows here. By now I structured the land so that only a maximum of 20% can go to waste. Everything else grows underground.
A part of the Aspinger Rarities (Aspinger-Raritäten) are also the Caigua (Cyclanthera), Chinese artichoke and the evening-primrose. Are these all superfoods?
A super-food is everything that grows naturally. If the food industry tries to tell us otherwise, it’s simply nonsense. It should be about one thing in the end - common economic welfare. It is a system that is built on the values that support a welfare economy. This is why I founded the initiative “Manna”. Six farmers from South Tyrol have joined so far and we would like to have as many as possible joining from around the world, from every continent.
One last question: how do you seduce your wife in a culinary way?
Well that is a personal but nice question. I will reveal my secret: with a delicious breaded celeriac or a juicy piece of tomato grilled on olive oil. That is all I have to say on this subject for now (smiles).
Thank you very much for the nice conversation and the insights into your company.
Interview: Andreas Haslauer