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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

In this edition of ‘Miracle Diet’, we look at how to grow tomatoes using open source seeds and guerilla ...
2020-07-06 09:00:00
On Tomatoes and Kombucha
On Tomatoes and Kombucha
Read in 8 minutes

Tomatoes never get depressed

There are about 7000 varieties of tomatoes in the world, but only 2% of them are cultivated. In the past, all seeds belonged to everyone – they was a common good. Today, we return to this model through ‘open source seeds’ and ‘guerrilla gardening’. You too can become a guerrilla gardener.

Restarting the flow

Today, seven companies control 70% of the global seed market, including Monsanto, which has been systematically taking over the seed market since the 1990s and holds patents for the majority of genetically-modified plants. This not only entails the economic dominance of corporations and a loss of biodiversity, but it also closes the seed cycle (an effect of breeding hybrids and patenting them). Instead of being self-sufficient, farmers have become dependent on corporations. This is why the Open Source Seed Initiative (founded by Minnesota breeders in 2012) and AGRECOL’s OpenSourceSeeds were born. Using open source rules borrowed from the digital sector, they restore – alongside other open source initiatives – the possibility to grow many varieties and species, as well as communal seed exchange. They are an alternative that allows farmers to escape the trap. In the open source system, new varieties can be created by cross-breeding, but they cannot be patented.

“The seeds we use decide what we eat and how diverse our food is. Access to seed is more important than ever and the cultivation of a great number of unpatented species and varieties is crucial for fighting the loss of biodiversity. Soil erosion and climate change demand a departure from our current agricultural model, instead adopting a sustainable model that is applied locally, with respect for local circumstances and empowers people and farmers by being decentralized. This is the opposite of what we have today, namely, uniform fields planted with very few varieties of crops that form the basis of our nutrition. This form of farming may be very profitable. In light of the challenges presented by climate change it is irresponsible and will impose a heavy burden on future generations,” writes Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, in a piece about ‘equitable seeds’, published in October 2017 in Politische Ökologie.

Tomato guerrillas

Roberta Czarnecka is a permaculture gardening fiend and zero waste enthusiast. She creates her own ecological, entirely-natural vegetable varieties, and shares her expertise through conducting educational workshops for children and adults, showing them how to enjoy growing plants in the city by creating balcony or windowsill gardens. Professionally, she is a therapist and a so-called TRE Provider (specializing in the treatment and prevention of trauma, tension and stress-related disorders), who also works with children. She has just begun working in Caritas with people who are immobile, partially paralysed, and in wheelchairs. “I’ve decided to offer them garden therapy,” she says. “A garden has more than three dimensions; certainly one of them is time. When caring for plants, we observe the changing seasons, the time of florescence and bearing fruit, insects, the smell of the garden and its uniqueness. It has a great effect on a person.”

Roberta grew up in Ratowice, a village near Wrocław. Her grandparents had old varieties of seeds, some of which they passed on to their granddaughter. To this day, she shares with others ‘independence beans’, the Polish variety of beans brought by her grandmother from the Eastern Borderlands after the war. She now lives in Warsaw, makes use of her balcony, and grows plants in her friends’ gardens or in a community garden. As part of her guerrilla gardening, she has planted tomatoes in front of the entrance to her block of flats.

Tomatoes are her favourite fruit to cross. Yes, tomato is a fruit (more precisely, a berry), but it is classified as a vegetable because of its culinary use. Tomato seeds are strong. “Breeding one’s own tomato variety is simple,” says Roberta. In her seed bank, she has 400 seeds. “To create a new variety, you take two varieties at flowering stage and place pollen taken from one variety on the stigma of the other flower. In this way, the F1 generation is created – a cross between two established varieties. Then, we make the selection and a new fixed variety is created. You can experiment to your heart’s content, cross for decorative qualities, leaf fuzz, different fruit colours or nutritional or taste values. We simply preserve the seeds of those fruits that satisfy us, and eat the others.”

Gardeners are keen to swap online – that’s the best source of seeds. They are also happy to share observations and genetic material of seeds that are not recorded. The DNA, enclosed in particles, still circulates around the world in envelopes, letters and parcels.

The garden is a struggle

Growers are proud of their varieties. Tom Wagner, an American tomato enthusiast, created the famous ‘Green Zebra’ striped tomato, and the red and black ‘Clackamas Blueberry’ tomato. Roberta is the author of the ‘Pink Snow’ pink tomato variety and the ‘Yeti’ tomato, whose leaves are covered in white fuzz. It survived the frost, but did not fruit. She also tried to cross Brussels sprouts with kale and peas, because she came across a woman who created a variety of peas with red pods. “It must have been very tasty – the snails had polished it all off in one night.”

“The garden is a struggle and is constantly threatened by hares, mice, and snails. There’s little space in the city, so one needs to find dwarf varieties or such as ‘Megagron’, which is a decorative high cocktail tomato variety that bears round bunches of fruit. We have to cope. The tomato is doing great. Growers say that it is a plant that never gets depressed; that it can pollinate itself from generation to generation. Inbreeding depression refers to the reduced biological fitness that arises from inbreeding. But the tomato is not bothered. And it does so well in cross-breeding!”

Into the jar

Culture feeds on sugar

After they turned one room of their flat into a laboratory with large containers where the kombucha mothers lived, at night they could hear rumbling and other strange noises. “It was as if we were living with dolphins,” they say.

Marcin Agopsowicz and Martyna Bunda brew live kombucha, which they have named ‘Wastna’. The word wastna in the Kashubian language means a woman whom one address with particular respect. Martyna comes from Kartuzy, loves Kashubia and the “Kashubian cold” (as described in her novel Nieczułość [Impermanence], for which she received several awards and was nominated for the literary Nike Prize). “Had it not been for the war, Kashubia might have been the homeland of Polish kombucha. The mother, or the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, cultivated in Pomeranian huts, did not survive the wars because there was none of the sugar on which it feeds,” Martyna says. Their Wastna brews near Warsaw, on the Wkra River. The kombucha mother feeds on sweet tea, and in the process produces many valuable substances: vitamins B and C, and acids such as folic acid.

Marcin was the first of the pair to learn about kombucha. He was always interested in spiritual development; he practices Zen. After the death of his teacher Małgorzata Braunek, he travelled to the US to undergo intensive training. He lived in the mountains, in a centre near the village of Asheville in North Carolina. Practising Zen also includes physical labour – performing specific manual activities, such as sweeping or washing the floor, in a conscious and a mindful manner. It turned out that taking care of kombucha was a perfect match for meditation and this simple practice. Sunya, a teacher from the Windhorse Zen Community, gave Marcin his first mother. It was a gift he still treasures today.

“Kombucha gives me a connection to life, to nature,” he declares. “I know it’s not a bodily entity, it’s bacteria and yeast, but when I stand over a kombucha mother with a knife, I feel strange. It looks like a brain, a body. We don’t eat meat, and maybe that’s why we hesitated to cut the mother into pieces. It turned out that it later regenerates, grows back to its previous size, although something in the shape of a scar is left behind. A kombucha mother behaves intelligently. Once it grows thick, it creates holes so that the fluid below has access to oxygen.”

Mysterious fungus

Kombucha is young, fermented sweet tea vinegar. The tea can be either green, white or black. The tea is mixed with a particular ‘tea fungus’, also known as Japanese fungus, although it doesn’t really have anything to do with fungi. It is a symbiotic culture of many species of bacteria and yeasts (called SCOBY), in which Acetobacter and Gluconobacter are the most common. Gluconacetobacter xylinus, which synthesizes cellulose, is the basic strain present in kombucha. The dominant strains of acetic acid bacteria are A. xylium, A. pasteurianus, A. aceti and Gluconobacter oxydans. Usually it takes about two weeks for tea and sugar to turn into kombucha that is almost entirely devoid of complex sugars, but you have to keep an eye on it, because in the summer, depending on the temperature, it can brew even in five days. Kombucha can be stored in a refrigerator, but its taste will change slightly. If kept for too long, it will turn vinegary. Commercially-available kombucha is often pasteurized, which results in the loss of its properties, but increases shelf life.

“It is a living organism – even in the fridge, the mother begins to form. However, you don’t need a mother for further fermentation, because kombucha is capable of self-regenerating itself. For unknown reasons, it may also go mouldy. It must be cared for and kept clean,” says Marcin. “Each batch of kombucha is different. No one really knows why,” adds Martyna. “In the home laboratory, we try to understand the rules according to which its taste is created, but a margin of mystery remains.”

Kombucha has been examined in many research institutions, confirming its health-promoting properties. Occasionally, opinions that question its beneficial effects emerge, but references to the purifying and energizing fermented tea beverage can be found in Chinese sources written as early as the Jin Dynasty – around 220 BC. Recently, kombucha has been enjoying extreme popularity in the Western world, fascinated as it is with ancient techniques of producing drinks and preserves. Of course, it has also found its way into industrial production, losing both its properties and unique, live appeal. Unless, of course, one resolves to respect its wild nature, and instead brews their own healthy beverage – guaranteed by the emperor and others who drink kombucha every day.

Thanks to a unique combination of nutrients, kombucha:

  • supports weight loss by improving metabolism;
  • helps burn fat, helps to dissolve and remove cholesterol deposits;
  • cleanses the body from toxins;
  • stimulates the immune system, supports it with natural antibiotics and virucidal substances;
  • supports the digestive system;
  • inhibits the growth of bacteria that are dangerous to health;
  • supports the work of endocrine glands, increases energy levels by having a beneficial and rejuvenating effect on the entire body;
  • helps in dealing with stress and insomnia;
  • slows down the course of many diseases.


Translated by Joanna Figiel

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Monika Kucia

is a journalist and culinary superintendent at Monika likes to bring words, flavours and people together. She helps foreigners learn about Poland from the tastiest side. She also creates culinary spectacles in which she encourages participants to eat leftovers, breathe in the smells of the basement, and sprinkle food with golden dust.