The story of this carrot landrace from the Italian speaking region of Switzerland is a perfect case study of how to revive an almost extinct variety.
Purple carrots seem to have originated somewhere between today’s Turkey and Afghanistan. Later, carrots followed the spread of the Ottoman Empire toward the East and the West. This is likely how they made their way to Austria and Germany, where they became known as “Violette Möhre.” They also spread to Spain, where they were called “Black Spanish” carrot.
These purple carrots with a yellow heart never became really popular in Western Europe. The early Vilmorin-Andrieux catalogs of 1856 and 1883 barely mention them, describing them as “sweet purple with pale yellow heart” and calling the variety “more of a curiosity than really useful” and not suitable for growing in France. At the time, most carrots in Europe were red or yellow or white.
The purple carrot made its way somehow to the Tessin region of Switzerland, at the crossroads between eastern, western and southern Mediterranean parts of Europe and where lakes and southern-facing mountain slopes allow for a mild micro-climate even at such a northern latitude. The purple carrot could be found at local farmers’ markets like the one at Lugano’s Plaza di Reforma until the mid 1950s, when tourism replaced agriculture as the region’s main economic driver.
The village of Bré, perched 2,500 feet above Lugano Lake, was a farming community that thrived on livestock and apples, pears, cherries and vegetables cultivated on terraced fields, the remnants of which can still be seen today. It was the last place were the purple carrot known as Gniff was grown before its recent revival.
The Gniff carrot took its name from its rough skin and appearance. The local expression “fa mia sé l’gniff” can be translated as “to make a face” or “to look grumpy.”
In the late 1950s, a man named Sartori noticed that the popular Gniff carrot was disappearing from local markets. His family had grown the Gniff on terraces where rye once grew, and he remembered hoeing fields of the carrots in the 1930s. In the end, only one older woman from Bre was selling the purple roots at the market in Lugano. Sartori acquired a handful of seeds from her and began growing the variety.
In 1999, he handed some over to ProSpecieRara, a Swiss seed-saving organization. It caught the eye of Friedemann Ebner, the carrot breeder for Sativa-Rheinau, an organic biodynamic seed company, which began growing the Gniff and offering seeds to Swiss farmers and gardeners. On a visit to the Sativa-Rheinau farm a few years ago, we decided that this beautiful and unique heirloom carrot should be available to U.S. customers as well. It takes one last grower who is willing to share with a seed-saving organization, as well as a company that can spread the seeds to a large audience. In today’s world, the Gniff is a perfect example of how different players can bring an endangered variety back to life!
Find Gniff carrot seeds here.