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.

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.

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