Lie of the Land

P1000806I came across this statement in a wine catalogue the other day – ‘Made from 55% (by volume) terres blanches, where the marl gives pretty, floral, spicy aromas with freshness and lift, and 45% terres rouges, where more clay gives a firmer-fleshed wine, with more tannin and grip’. Does it? Does it, really?
Is there scientific evidence that the medium in which fruits and vegetables are grown, or the foods on which animals feed, actually affects their flavour?

Instinctively and anecdotally, I would say ‘yes. I remember a Sri Lankan taxi driver telling me that bananas picked in the dry season were better that bananas picked in the wet season because, he said, that trees absorbed more water during the wet season, and this diluted the flavour of the bananas. And then there was the 5-yr old ewe that I ate on a hillside in Dumfries some years ago. This was mutton by any standards, but it was quite unlike the mutton I remembered of my youth, mutton produced on the rich grasslands of southern England, rich, fatty, loose textured, beguiling, with the smell of boiled wool and lanolin. This mutton had a fine-woven texture, with little fat, and a much more delicate, spicy, herbal flavour, the result, so I was persuaded, of having a lived a lively outdoor life, marching up and down the Dumfries hills in all weathers, living on blueberries, heather and hill grasses.

Now, both of these explanations seemed quite reasonable to me, but to what point is this supposition or hogwash, and to what point is it supported by hard fact? Robert K Wolke, emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburg, has no doubts. In What Einstein Told His Cook 2, he wrote ‘ A multitude of environmental factors such as the amounts of various nutrients in the soil; the soil’s texture and drainage; its micro-flora and –fauna; its proportions of sand, rock and clay; the land’s slope; the growing temperatures; the amounts of rain, wind and sun – in sum, the plant’s entire micro-milieu, short of phases of the moon at planting time – can lead to subtle differences in the ultimate fruit or vegetable.’

A study by the Oregon State University showed that ‘Irrigation and/or the presence of water in food may dramatically affect the quality of a fruit or vegetable.’ Well, yes, absolutely. The flavour of hydroponically grown vegetables is inverse proportion to their physical perfection. The more beautiful they look, the less they taste, or as the Geelong Advertiser of 1850 puts it ‘The excellence of fruit is, stupidly enough, to he decided by its size in almost all cases, when in nine cases out of ten, nay ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it loses flavour according to its beauty.’

On the other hand, logic would dictate that organic fruit and vegetables, grown at their own pace, and without the benefit of chemical or other intervention, should taste better than those which are forced and liberally dowsed with chemicals of every kind. However, as anyone who has ever been involved in comprehensive tasting of organic will bear our, organic is not a guarantee of flavour. Some times it is. Oft times it isn’t.

The truth is while we may be happy to accept the general principle that land, wind, rain and sun affect the raw materials of the food we eat, the actual basis of verifiable date into specific relationship between flavour and terroir is tiny.

I have a three raised vegetable beds in front of my house, in which every year I experiment with different varieties, in the hope of moments of flavour revelation. And each year, my efforts are a triumph of hope over experience. Still, I can feel excitement beginning to bubble at the new growing season hurries near. I’ve got some innovations that I’m sure will transform last year’s disasters. To quote the admirable Geelong Advertiser again ‘There is a vast difference between the productions of the garden, according to the mode of treating them, the size of everything always affecting its flavour.’ How true, how very true.

NB. This article first appeared in http://www.flavourfirst.org/

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
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2 Responses to Lie of the Land

  1. Sophie James says:

    I loved reading this.’The plant’s entire micro-milieu’ conjures up such interesting questions…perhaps the mood you’re in when you’re sowing the seeds?! When something is cooked with love we profess we can often tell. ‘The specific relationship between flavour and terroir is tiny.’ But maybe tiny is enough. Thank you for such great writing. Sophie

  2. Personally, I think the subsequent manufacturing process is overlooked in these things. For example, the type of barrel used for maturation does seem to make a huge difference.

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