Although you wouldn't confuse Renee Shepherd with Nick the Greek, she likes to make a bet now and then. In fact it was because of a bet that she started her seed business, which features European vegetable seeds.
An avid Northern California gardener, Shepherd's interest in European vegetables began when a friend, the manager of a large Dutch wholesale seed company, visited her and told her that her garden looked fine, but that he would bet her that he had vegetable varieties that would taste better than hers.
She asked him, "If your vegetables are so great, why aren't they available in the United States?"
He told Shepherd that many of his best-tasting varieties were impossible to market in the United States because commercial growers here wanted to raise vegetables that are cosmetically perfect, would ship well over long distances and ripen at one time to facilitate machine harvesting.
While in Europe, there is a high demand for freshly prepared cuisine and growers insist on vegetable varieties bred for the best eating qualities; both flavor and tenderness are important.
Shepherd took him up on his bet, grew some of his vegetables, discovered that they did taste better and became enthusiastic about European vegetable varieties.
Believing this enthusiasm would transfer to other gardeners once they sampled these varieties, she founded Shepherd's Garden Seeds, a company devoted to bringing American gardeners the best vegetable varieties Europe has to offer.
Why are European vegetables more tasty? According to Shepherd, Europeans enjoy fresh produce to an extent not realized in this country.
In most European towns and cities, kitchen gardens proliferate, and there are numerous local farmers supplying a huge number of produce markets and stands. People shop for produce three or four times a week and demand strictly fresh, and above all, flavorful fruits and vegetables.
Each year, Shepherd travels to the Netherlands, Italy, France and England to visit growers and sample their vegetables. She brings back the seeds for any outstanding varieties, grows them in her trial garden and, if they reach her expectations, she lists the seeds in her catalogue.
The company's seed selection is not strictly limited to European varieties, some American and Oriental varieties are carried also; the criteria being that the vegetable must be easy to grow and that it taste good.
In addition to growing vegetables and selling vegetable seeds, Shepherd says that "she is oriented toward the eating end of gardening." It is not surprising that she is active in Bay Area culinary circles. Her recently published cookbook "Recipes From a Kitchen Garden," is the result of many recipe-tasting sessions using the fresh bounty of her garden.
A visit to Shepherd's garden last summer unveiled a number of exciting and tasty vegetables. Among them were cornichons, the tiny French pickling cucumbers, and Chioggia beets, which display beautiful red-and-white-striped rings when cut. These beets are amazingly sweet, tender and easy to grow.
Giallo pepper was a huge, quarter-moon-shaped pepper from Italy. From England, there was Rollinson's Telegraph cucumber, a long, slender "burpless" variety that the English favor for cucumber sandwiches. From the Netherlands came Broadleaf Dutch cress, a green that tastes exactly like water-cress, but is easy to grow in ordinary soil.
The famous slender French fillet beans were prominent in her garden. The French call them haricots verts and they are long and pencil-thin. Shepherd says they are elegant steamed and served whole. Her favorite fillet bean is called Vernandon, which she says is quite easy to grow.
For both flavor and beauty, Shepherd loves the Ross Bianca eggplant from Italy. The fruits come in delicate shades of rosy lavender, blended with soft white. The flavor is mild, yet meaty.
Salads are a favorite with Shepherd, especially if they are made with her Lollo Rossa, which is a crimson-colored Italian loose-leaf lettuce, or her Merveille Des Quatre Saisons, a marvelous French bibb lettuce.
Vegetables bred in Europe do very well in California, Shepherd's experiences prove. According to Shepherd, vegetables bred for Europe's kitchen gardens are designed for a climate that doesn't begin to approach the optimum growing conditions prevalent in much of California.
So if these vegetables do well in the less-than-ideal growing conditions in Europe, they positively thrive here under our ideal growing conditions.
Shepherd is particularly proud of her herb garden, which feature a large selection of basils including 'Anise Basil,' a plant whose leaves impart a combination anise-basil flavor to dishes, and her salad green garden, which contains a number of delicate French lettuces and several radicchios from Italy.
In addition to vegetables and herbs, Shepherd grows and cooks with a colorful array of edible flowers.
Among them are nasturtiums, anise hyssop, calendulas, chive blossoms and Johnny jump-ups.
If you would like to grow some European vegetables in your garden or container, Shepherd's catalogue costs $1. It contains recipes and garden tips in addition to seed listings and is available from Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018.