QUALITY – THE TASTE
Here's an interesting topic! No?
There is so much to tell, and it concerns many people.
This is probably one of the topics my relatives most often mention, except for pesticides and organic, of course.
But first, what's the flavor?
This is a series of chemical compounds naturally secreted by the plant, depending on its needs.
The plant is not trying to make us happy, it seeks above all to satisfy its own needs of multiplication, extension, and self-defense.
Some aromatic compounds are designed to attract animals to disperse the seeds, others are rather repellent, irritating or toxic compounds, intended to avoid the destruction of the seed or the plant itself, by animals.
In short, what is the specificity of each food, comes from the own botanical history of each type of plant.
Among the compounds that make up the flavor, we find first the aromatic compounds, specific to each species, then acids, sugars, astringency and bitterness.
But these compounds are present in varying proportions depending on the evolution of the vegetative cycle of the plant.
Thus some species protect their seeds, too young, by unpleasant compounds and make them attractive when they are ripe, to make them attractive, with flavors or sugars.
This is for example the case of peach, whose seed, when young, is rich in hydrocyanic acid or prussic acid, a highly toxic compound, to protect it. Later, the prussic acid level is reduced or disappears when the wood of the stone is hard, so the seed is protected. Then the fruit maturation phase can begin with the appearance, in the last days, of flavorings and sugars intended to make it attractive for big animals, wild boar or deer, for example, who will eat and participate in the dispersion of the cores, so of the seeds.
The components that make the flavor of a fruit or vegetable are produced by the plant, usually in the final days before physiological maturity. In other words, a fruit or a vegetable harvested too early will not yet have reached its optimum taste potential.
The same food, picked overripe, has lost some of its characteristics. Indeed, with maturity, flesh oxidizes by senescence effect, and aromas to, a fermentation process begins for causing the fall of the fruit, and attracting other animals, such as flies, to decompose the flesh, which profoundly changes the characteristics of the food, which may even make it inedible.
That's why when I hear people say that nothing beats a fruit ripened on the tree, I say it depends. Some fruits, like many pears or plums, will be better if picked earlier and then refined. It's a question of balance between the components of the flavor, and the texture of the flesh.
My mother, on the phone, told me a few days ago, that she bought in Bordeaux, strawberries a new variety (I forgot the name), absolutely delicious. A few days later, 200 km away, she decided to repeat the experience but, oh disappointment, the strawberries, though of the same variety, were tasteless.
That's agriculture. We grow living beings, subject to various conditions, whose physiology depends primarily on climatic conditions, with different farmers, each one with his own way of working.
To get a quality product (for simplicity, I'll speak about fruit, but it affects almost all crops, vegetables, roots, seeds, leaves, etc.), it will be necessary to meet several fundamental conditions:
- A genetic quality potential. Subject to the same environmental conditions, there are delicious varieties and some not. If the farmer cultivates a variety with low flavor potential, he will never get an excellent fruit. So that's the first point, for the farmer, not to be mistaken in choosing the variety.
- Appropriate cultivation conditions. You will perhaps think about organic farming, not me. Cultivation method does not matter as regards flavor. There comes into account a concept of balance. A plant needs leaves for the synthesis of sugars and aromas by photosynthesis. If the plant is too weak, the quality will be lower by its lack of capacity to feed the fruit, except if let a very low crop, unprofitable for the farmer. But if the plant is too strong, the quality will also be low, because synthesized elements will be consumed by the excess of vegetation, not by the fruit. Come on into play the soil, fertilization, irrigation, pest control, various mechanical work, in short, all actions that directly or indirectly act on the balance of the plant.
- Climatic conditions. This is a key factor, but totally out of the control of the farmer. If you did everything to perfection, from beginning to end, but you end up, on the eve of the harvest, with heavy rains or simply a covered sky for days, the taste will fall very significantly. See in this regard, my two recent articles https://culturagriculture.blogspot.com.es/2016/04/76-bad-weather-7-lack-of-light.html and https://culturagriculture.blogspot.com.es/2016/05/78-bad-weather-9-rain.html
- Harvest conditions. Another key factor, but this one passes by the decision of the farmer or, to be more exact, by the decision of the commercial organization on which depends the farmer. According to the destination of the product, it will be picked at its point of maximum taste, for direct sales for example, or it will be harvested for a consumption in the 48 or 72 following hours, for a local market through wholesalers, or it will be picked up for a consumption in the 4 to 7 following days or more, in the case of a distant shipping. Under these conditions, you will have more chance of finding tasty fruits and vegetables by going directly to the farmer, to buy seasonal produce.
- Storage conditions. This is a key point, especially for distant expeditions. Why? In fact, to delay the previous point, the picked fruit for distant shipping or conservation, can be harvested in conditions very close to those of products for consumption to 48 or 72 hours. The difference comes mainly of storage conditions. Here we enter a field where technology plays a vital role. I will devote a special chapter, because there is a lot to say. Yet it is important here to note that a fruit of excellent eating quality, but poorly preserved, may be disappointing or bad at the time of consumption. And for detractors of food preservation, who are becoming more numerous, it should be noted that this is a key aspect for reducing food waste worldwide.
- The plant health aspect. I refer especially to rot in conservation that can completely change the taste of food. In general, they are easy to spot, yet some fungi, or the majority of them in the initial phase, are sometimes difficult to see, but could have time to affect the flavor of the food. We return therefore to the storage conditions.
How does one determine the taste possibility of a food?
Aromatic compounds are very difficult to measure. They are even so hard to measure, for highly aromatic (and high value) products like wine, chocolate, coffee, tea or cigars, that we don't measure the aromas, but we call professional tasters, responsible to characterize each type of product, since we are unable to do it otherwise.
Currently, the market has simplified the taste problem, by limiting it to very simple measurements, like sugar and acidity. I offered you a full article on measuring quality in the orchard. I suggest you to read it again. https://culturagriculture.blogspot.com.es/2014/06/20-measure-quality-in-orchard.html
One can simply add that sugar and acidity are quality criteria, but are not sufficient to warrant a real high taste level. If you eat a very sweet strawberry, with the just acidity to balance the taste, but without flavorings, you take a limited pleasure.
This is one of the big problems of agricultural production. It is almost impossible in agriculture to produce food with regularly good taste, from one week to another, or from one year to another. Wine lovers know this well, since they prefer some years with better quality.
This affects the entire agricultural production.
This "weakness" has been widely used by companies specialized in dairy or meal products, extolling the taste regularity of their specialties. Obviously, it's so much easier when you can homogenize the taste by adding aromatic extracts.
Farmers can't do it, except if producing in greenhouses, or in countries with particularly steady climate, what are doing some major food groups, enjoying by the way low wages in tropical countries of Africa or South America.
By the way, if you are told that melons are injected with sugar, I authorize you to laugh out loud. It is pure urban legend, invented and spread by ignorant or malicious.
The drop which escapes by a crack around the tail, is only a recognizable sign in the field, of the state of maturity and of a high taste potential of the melon. The farmer is only observing which the best fruit is. This is a test for harvest, not a manipulation.
The flavor is a real problem in agriculture, since it is one of the most difficult characters to control.
The market looks more and more to the taste, which is normal, and even desirable. Yet we are not currently able to guarantee the taste.
The market does not understand these difficulties, or does not accept them. In fact, the ignorance of the consumer, makes that the retailer does not want to disappoint him, and requires the farmer a minimum quality, actually a simple sugar level for fruits.
An aromatic fruit but little sweet will be denied, but a sweet and tasteless fruit will be accepted.
As you see, there is still much progress to make to ensure an adequate minimum quality.These advances come first by varietal selection, to be able to sow or plant only varieties that have a high gustatory potential.