Through the summer the amount of veg we are able to bring home from the allotment has been gradually increasing but it is in September that we really start to be able to savour the fruits of our labour. Through the rest of the year we have been hard at work; preparing the ground, sowing seeds, nursing young plants through their first months, fending off pests and diseases and watering like crazy. Finally the time has come that our hard work has come to fruition and the majority of our time at the allotment is actually spent harvesting our produce. Between the endless cycle of harvesting, preparing and preserving there is little time left for other jobs, but it is essential we put our reserves away now in preparation for the lean months of winter. There are few things more satisfying than cracking open a bottle of home-brewed cider in the dark months of the year or the tang of pickled red cabbage with boxing day cold cuts.
I have fond memories of this time of year. As a child, the return to school would coincide with the ripening of the chestnuts, ready for endless games of conkers and the sagging branches of trees laden with ripe apples were perfectly placed for a spot of scrumping on the way home. I proudly remember carrying one of my dad’s enormous marrows, almost as big as myself, to present at the church harvest festival service. I can’t imagine that the old folk of the parish were all that grateful for the marrows. My own memories were that they were pretty bland and the endless nights of ratatouille made with homegrown tomatoes, onions and marrows could’ve done with a dash more of homegrown herbs to spice them up a bit.
Our tastes change as we age. As children we are drawn to sweetness and away from bitterness. Bitter flavours are an indicator of poisons and we have a natural aversion to them, but as adults we learn that some of these bitter tastes (like coffee or beer) can be pleasant and beneficial. The sensation of taste is caused by the reaction of taste receptors in the mouth to food. A quick look in the mirror will show that our tongues are covered with thousands of tiny bumps. Each bump is full of hundreds of tastebuds and there are thought to be around 5000 taste buds on the average human tongue. Each taste bud contains 50-100 taste receptors, each one bristling to tell us what is going on in our mouths. These receptors are sensitive to the five main tastes; sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and umami ( a Japanese word roughly translated as ‘savoury’). Recent research has also highlighted the possibility that we may also be able to sense starchiness in our foods. This may have developed as it is beneficial for us to be able to identify ‘hearty’ foods that contain lots of energy. Our perception of whether we enjoyed the food is not just about these five basic tastes, but can also be influenced by the aroma, texture and temperature of the food.
I used to work testing different varieties of fruit and vegetables. They would be rated for yield, disease resistance, ease of cultivation and appearance, but often the key factor that separated them would be how they tasted. It is all well and good harvesting a huge crop, but if they don’t taste particularly nice you won’t be motivated to grow them again next year. The ultimate destiny of any vegetable is to be eaten after all. The flavour can be affected by many aspects. Each variety will have a slightly different balance of flavours. The weather in any particular season can affect the flavour, and the combination of soil type and variety will have an influence, much like when a wine grape is said to take on the ‘terroir’ of where it has been cultivated.
I have found, through growing my own fruit and vegetables, that one of the main factors affecting their flavour is also their freshness. The fact that with my own produce it can be just hours from plot to plate means they are incomparable to the products which have been through an industrialised system of cooling, transportation, and distribution networks over a period of days which can irrevocably damage the delicate aromatic compounds essential to their flavour before they ever reach the shops.
On my own plot I have found myself growing less and less of the traditional ‘staples’. Whilst I will always appreciate that growing your own can improve the flavour of even something as simple as the potato, I am becoming more drawn towards using my efforts to grow items which need to be as fresh as possible, are hard to get hold of, or expensive in the quantities I desire. Cabbages and sprouts are reduced to make space for asparagus and sweetcorn, potatoes and carrots have given way to oca and yacon, and the areas devoted to grapes and apples for brewing my own wine and cider are gradually increasing. I will always save a bit of space for the staples like beans, pumpkins and onions, but will continue to experiment, trying both new and older varieties, until I finally manage to settle on my favourites