Tag Archives: flavour

Guy’s Newsletter: the three rules of flavour

A few years ago we scientifically tested every willing Riverford staff member for the sensitivity of their palate. The best formed a taste panel to assess the flavour of everything we grew; a good idea but, like so much science, it failed to deal with subjectivity and was excessively reductionist, tending to favour ubiquitous sweetness over anything challenging or complex. If we followed the panel’s guidance we would never have sold a radicchio, endive or cardoon. More recently we’ve put together a group of in-house chefs and food enthusiasts to assess our carrots, cheese, wine and olive oil. Last week we sat down to taste the tomatoes from our tunnels; as always, our cherry tomato Sakura won, along with some new trial orange and yellow baby plum tomatoes.

For all fruit and veg, great flavour comes from a combination of three things:

Variety: The more you intensively select for yield or early maturity, the more you lose less easily quantified traits like complex flavours and nutritional value. Over 30 years I have seen many of the varieties we selected for flavour dropped from breeders’ lists. Consolidation in the seed trade just adds to this; after a global buying spree Monsanto now owns a staggering 23% of the global seed trade and is negotiating to buy Syngenta who own a further 9%.

Growing conditions: Up to a point, slow, steady growth from a healthy, well balanced soil creates the best flavour. Excessive water and soluble nitrogen gives the luxuriant growth and high yields which look great in the field but disappoint in the kitchen. Too much stress can result in excessive bitterness, toughness and ‘off’ flavours, particularly in the brassica family, though in carrots and some herbs drought can result in incredible flavour, so it is hard to be dogmatic.

Harvest freshness and post harvest storage: Ideally fruit should be harvested fully ripe and never see a cold room, while green veg should be picked with the dew on them and eaten as soon as possible. Refrigeration can greatly extend life with variable impact on flavour; fine for salads, not great for courgettes.

Subjectivity can come close to snobbery and exclusivity but, without some trust in personal sensitivities, life would be very dull; a bit like supermarket veg.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: is organic food better for you?

Most of us like to think that our assessment of the world and the decisions we make are based on evidence, rationality and logic. However, we are emotional beings, full of prejudice and ego, with the added complication of media manipulation thrown in. Science makes valiant efforts to exclude emotional bias and self-interest through systematic testing and peer review before its conclusions are presented as proof. It’s the best show in town, but is far from perfect as scientists are emotional beings too, and often see their work selectively published (or not at all) to meet commercial and political interests.

In 2009 the Food Standards Agency published a report suggesting there were no significant health benefits to eating organic food. Their director, Professor Krebs, concluded that it was a “lifestyle choice”, ie. that you are a mug and I am a quack. I was a little sceptical; my own instinct based on 26 years of growing and eating organic food is that it makes a huge difference. Broadly speaking, the slow steady soil-based growth typical of organic crops produces enhanced flavour, texture and, I would bet my house, more nutrition. So strong is my conviction (common sense or prejudice?) that I would say if science fails to reveal this, it is the science at fault and not my vegetables.

Five years later another, much larger study has been published in the highly respected British Journal of Nutrition. An international panel has concluded that significant nutritional benefits come from eating organically: 18-69% more antioxidants (linked to reduced risk of many diseases and cancers), far lower pesticide levels (no surprise) and lower toxic heavy metal levels. I’m tempted to extrapolate that per unit of nutritional value, our veg might even be cheaper.

How to explain the difference between the two studies? Perhaps science is not as objective as we thought. They’ll get it right in the end, but for now common sense prevails, which means not spraying our veg with nerve toxins, accepting slower growth, and occasionally sharing them with a few bugs. They will often cost a bit more as a result but that doesn’t make you a mug or me a quack, it just makes Professor Krebs seem excessively dogmatic and narrow minded.

Guy Watson

In search of the ultimate tomato

Longstanding customers normally tell us that flavour is the main reason they buy our boxes, so we have to deliver. Mostly we do (I am proud of about 80% of what we sell about 90% of the time), but flavour is very hard to manage and requires constant vigilance to avoid slipping into safe but bland mediocrity. Flavour comes from an interaction of variety, soil type and growing conditions. Peats and sands are normally the easiest soils to manage, but our experience is that loams, with a good mix of organic matter and minerals, produce the best flavour. As a general rule anything that speeds up growth (most notably excess water and nitrogen) detracts from flavour; a little hardship improves taste and longevity but too much produces bitterness, off flavours and premature ageing.

It is a frequently quoted rule of management that “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”; an irritating adage but, after 25 years in business, I have to admit, largely true. The problem with flavour is that it is subjective. Exceptions are pressure testing (quantifies squidginess of an apple) and brix testing (measures sugar content). Unsurprisingly, since the advent of these gadgets, apples have become sweeter and more juicy. We have satisfied these simple tastes but as is often the case with immediate gratification, the end result is ultimately boring; hence the rise in interest in heritage varieties with more subtle flavours.

Perhaps this is, in part, food snobbery. Sweet and juicy can be good, but so can a whole range of unquantifiable flavours and textures that are being lost as growers manage their crops to achieve the measurable at the minimum cost. Last week we ran a tomato tasting panel using staff (who we have tested and selected for their palates) and volunteers who were lunching in the Field Kitchen. A small minority liked the slow-grown, outdoor, more deeply flavoured (I thought) Marmande varieties from a loam soil but, to my horror, far more went for the sweet and juicy, indoor-grown cherry tomatoes. Maybe I’m a snob. Maybe I am just wrong. For now we will stick with the cherries, but like all frustrated pollsters, we will ask again next year.

Guy Watson

Strawberry season

Strawberries mark the start of summer and provoke Pavlovian dog style anticipation but, as in so many years, the first pickingsStrawberries close up had very disappointing flavour. Just as I was despairing and the first complaints started arriving, the flavour developed (no one knows why) and I am confident this will
improve further as we get into the main season.