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Imported seeds yield exotic tastes

Catalogs for foreign seeds, an attractive new venture, tantalize readers with pencil-thin beans from France, succulent plum tomatoes from Naples, and fanciful greens from all over.

You can double as a cosmopolitan off-hours farmer and connoisseur without leaving your own vegetable patch.

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''A true antipasto melon; clean-scented, fine-flavored, juicy, and sweet - to prepare the palate for the meal ahead,'' says a catalog from Epicure Seeds of Rochester, N.Y., describing a melon called Di Brindisi. ''The succulent flesh has the color of sweet butter.''

Or, from the same catalog, try peas from France that ''arrive in a burst of plump pods filled to the brim with peas that are tiny, tender, and sweet.''

Bringing foreign seeds to America is, of course, as old as the first colonists. Many of our vegetables, like us, are immigrants. A fascinating document of the Puritan era is the list of seeds purchased in London by John Winthrop Jr. for a 1631 voyage to Massachusetts. But today's imports, unlike those that served the homesteading needs of the pioneers, cater to new tastes and fancies.

In World War II and afterward, millions of Americans lived abroad for long periods of time or traveled widely as the air age made tourists out of nearly everybody. They acquired a liking for, say, a French bean or a German cabbage or an English lettuce. Or, even without leaving home, they sampled a piquant green in an Oriental restaurant and wanted it for their own table.

Also, television brought exotic cuisine and expertise into the living room a la Julia Child for people to emulate. Like foreign cars on the highways, foreign foods appeared in specialty shops and gourmet stores and then spread to the supermarket.

The next step was growing your own. As every gardener knows, there's no better way of guaranteeing quality and freshness in a vegetable than raising and picking it yourself.

But what's better about foreign seeds? There's no good answer to that. As the old Latin saying goes, ''De gustibus non disputandum est'' - one doesn't, or shouldn't, argue about taste. But there's no question that some of the imports are at least different-looking and may tickle the palate in new ways.

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I used to think Kentucky Wonder beans were the very best and that there was hardly any point in growing others. Then French beans as thin as shoestrings caught my fancy. Perhaps their elegant appearance on the plate enhances their taste. Whatever the reason, I now grow both the Kentucky and the French.

In lettuces, Buttercrunch, a bibb-like leaf variety that lasts into hot weather, had been queen of my garden for years. But now a golden-green French Oak Leaf has come along to challenge that supremacy. The variety of lettuces available from both domestic and foreign sources is truly astounding, and I try one or two different ones every year.

On a trip abroad, of course, you may pick up a packet or two of seeds, but the customs agent will probably confiscate them when you return to the United States. Importation of seeds is governed by international conventions. Seeds must be certified as to germination, presence of noxious weeds, and so on, and are subject to inspection by agricultural authorities.

The big American seed houses offer some foreign imports, but about 10 houses have made a specialty of seeds from abroad. Thompson & Morgan of Farmingdale, N.J., offers some 4,000 varieties of flowers and vegetables from 135 countries.

Le Jardin du Gourmet (the Gourmet's Garden) of West Danville, Vt., features shallots, but it also offers a nice variety of seeds from France and other countries, including a squash and a pumpkin from Africa.

Le Marche (the Market) of Dixon, Calif., has an eye-catching catalog with brief histories of the vegetables and culinary notes like this: ''Branches of fresh fennel make the essential bed for the distinctly flavored grilled fish which is so deservedly praised in Provencal homes and restaurants.''

Charlotte Glenn, who runs Le Marche with her husband, John, says the seed industry is moving in new directions as it tries to meet the growing interest in exotic flavors and gourmet cooking.

Bruce Sangster, president of Thompson & Morgan, says: ''There's a great deal of one-upmanship in gardening. You want to do something better than your neighbor.''

But the fundamental reason for the interest in foreign varieties, he notes, is this: ''People just want more choice; they're becoming more discerning.''

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