It seems that nearly every celebrity chef is embracing the idea that growing your own food is worthwhile. Last week I watched a cookery program in which the presenter took a portable stove down to some London allotment gardens (community gardens) and cooked up a delicious lunch from ingredients picked in situ. Such programs may simply be a reaction to the current surge of interest in the source and quality of our food but it has always been true that the very best cooks need the very best ingredients. Where better to source those special culinary delights than from your own garden?
The Secrets of Great Taste
Great taste is not an automatic benefit of growing your own food. I have experienced freshly grown vegetables that have tasted bland, watery and sometimes even like the worst of standard grocery store produce. So, what are the factors that bring out the best flavors?
- Sun ripening: Many fruit and vegetables produced for grocery stores, particularly those shipped huge distances, are picked early and then ripened up for sale by controlling the temperature and gases around them. In contrast, sun ripened fruit such as tomatoes develop a much richer flavour when left to mature on the vine. It is no surprise that tomatoes are so popular to grow, particularly when you consider the price premium charged for sun-ripened varieties sold in shops.
- Picking Just Before Eating: A lot of the sweeter vegetables benefit from being picked just before eating. This is because the sugars quickly start turning to starches once they are off the plant. Try sampling sweet corn or fresh peas and you can notice the difference just a couple of hours after picking. Gathering ingredients just before a meal is the best way to get really sweet tastes, plus a walk in your garden is a great way to anticipate the coming meal!
- Great Soil: Rich organic soil is teaming with nutrients and minerals – the perfect combination for plants to perform at their best and produce a great-tasting crop. In my experience good garden soil that has been steadily enriched over the years with compost usually out-performs standard ‘grow-bags’ and other manufactured compost when it comes to the flavor of the vegetables grown. Adding foliar feeds such as organic seaweed extract watered onto tomatoes once a week can also boost the health of the plant and the resulting harvest.
- Extra Attention: Farming is all about getting maximum output from the resources at hand. As gardeners we can do better than that. A little more space where required, weeding and pruning to an individual plant’s needs and corrective attention where required can all make stronger plants and bring better results.
- Special Varieties: Agriculture selects plant varieties for their productivity, disease resistance, uniform shape and ease of harvesting. Flavor is very far down the list. As gardeners we have the luxury of choosing varieties that have been selected by generations of plant breeders for great taste, texture and variety. So it is worth looking for these qualities in seed catalogus and not just going with the standard mass-grown varieties. This year I conducted a taste test with my family of the five varieties of tomatoes we grew and discovered that we preferred the texture and flavor of ‘Sub-Arctic Plenty’ to the more popular varieties such as ‘Moneymaker’.
The Gourmet’s Choice
Not all fruit and vegetables taste superior when grown at home. I rarely notice much difference with many of the staple foods such as potatoes or onions unless growing a special variety that I cannot easily buy. The following are what I consider the highest priority if you want to get the superior taste of home-grown treats:
- Sweet corn
- A selection of herbs including basil, mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary and cilantro
- Apples, especially unusual varieties
For the ultimate advice on great taste, try getting hold of a copy of The Gourmet Gardener. This is possibly my favourite gardening book of all time written by the champion of great-tasting organic gardening, Bob Flowerdew. Page after page of this beautiful book illustrates his lifelong quest for the ultimate great tasting food together with stunning photographs from his own garden.
Taste may not be the main reason that many people grow their own food but it is certainly true that the very best flavours usually come from fresh produce grown in healthy soil. By concentrating on special varieties, good soil, perfect ripening and picking the crops as they reach perfection, gardeners can achieve results that any chef would be proud of.
If you have a favourite great-tasting vegetable, fruit or herb that you have grown yourself then why not recommend it by adding a comment below...