You will probably consider that statement to be true already when thinking of food, of course taste matters, but does your food really taste like it could, or should?
My taste journey started over a decade ago. I was routinely buying my groceries, selecting the ripest, juiciest looking fruit and vegetables, but it was one particular purchase that led to a question that bought me to where I am today.
I selected the best looking tomatoes on the shelf. Later that day I prepared my favourite Caprese salad and I sat down to eat, salivating a little. Biting into a thick slice of tomato with a little olive oil and basil, I could taste no tomato. I could taste the oil and basil but the tomato hadn’t turned up. I realised that far too often the tomato wasn’t turning up. Up until that moment it had been everything I expected of a tomato, it was red and round, it was firm and looked juicy.
Biting into it my taste buds informed me that I had been cheated, there was the tomatoey appearance, but it stopped there, it was flavourless. Then came the question. Why?
As I explored that question, I realised how disconnected I had become from my food choices. I was assuming that picking my fruit and veg off the shelf, rather processed foods was close to the pinnacle. I decided the way to find my answer was to grow my own tomatoes. I bought some tomato plants, and soon after with much excitement, I had a few tomatoes growing. However, admiring my tomatoes I realised I also had some pests and plant problems too. Where from? They were not going to spoil my crop, so I bought some tomato fertiliser and an aphid spray, thinking this tomato was getting a little expensive, but I was not stopping now. A few weeks later and success, I had grown some tomatoes, I was a farmer.
When I came to eat them, things had improved, at least I was telling myself that given the time and money invested, but the reality was the flavour was still falling short. These were nothing like the flavours that I experienced eating Caprese in rural Italy.
Fast forward several years and many growing projects and questions later, I had learnt that using synthetic fertilisers and pest controls was actually hampering our ability to achieve the desired taste in our tomatoes, we might take a step forward in managing the tomatoes environment and defending it from pests, but the flavour was not the reward I was expecting. Why? Then I found the answer, it was in the soil.
More specifically soil biology. When you realise the nature of the problem, it’s actually quite simple. The flavour in a tomato is a direct reflection of its nutritional value, and unsurprisingly your taste buds are finely tuned to measure this. We can measure it scientifically too, it’s a measurement called Brix. So not only was the flavour missing but that meant I was not getting the intended nutrient benefits either.
To achieve a nutritionally dense and flavourful tomato, rather than just a juicy red looking one, and to ward off pests and diseases in the process, the tomato plant needs access to a wide range of minerals. It gets these from the soil. The plants photosynthesise and produce sugars, some for their own needs and some they send to their roots, called exudates. These exudates attract soil biology who populate the plants root system, as sugar is in short supply underground. The plant exchanges these sugars for a ready supply of minerals, which the resident biology mine from the soil aggregates (the sands, silt and clay) and convert to a plant soluble form.
In short, the nutritional density and therefore taste of the tomato, requires the optimal health of the tomato plant, which requires healthy soil and soil biology, as part of a healthy and biodiverse environment, which directly benefits us and provides us with nutritious food. Conclusion, to sustain ourselves we have to sustain the environment in which we live and farm.
So it turns out that the decision we make in choosing a tomato, or any other food for that matter, is much more than it might appear, it is a vote. A vote for the method of farming, and the health of the environment and landscapes in which we live. When you connect with that idea, you realise that the solution cannot be found in us seeking to control and exploit the landscapes for our own immediate gain, and more likely profit, expecting it to keep giving up the fruit, it wont, at least not for long. The solution is found in regeneration and support of natural cycles, in this way we can realise abundant and nutritious food in harmony with nature.
So the pinnacle was not necessarily in choosing my fresh looking fruit and veg from the shelf, or in growing my own. Both can be the solution, ideally locally grown and packaging free, if the method of production is aligned with the development of nutritional value and in balance with soil health and the wider environment.
The taste is everything.