Growing Food for Taste and Flavor

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My favorite pepper is the Espelette, a hot pepper I first tasted in France.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – We gardeners love our home grown vegetables. As John Denver sang long ago, “Only two things that money can’t buy and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” And why do they taste so good? We can grow tomatoes that don’t have to conform to commercial requirements of size, shape, color and transportability. Our soils generally are rich in compost or manure and host a wide range of minerals and micro-organisms that enhance the flavors of our vegetables. And of course, we eat them fresh from the garden.

We can taste five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. These flavors were important to our evolution as they told early humans what was safe to eat and what to avoid. The fifth flavor was not named until the last century: umami signals available protein in meat, eggs, milk, and beans. It is not as easily described or identified as the other four, but it is sometimes described as the flavor of contentment. We need protein, and feel good when we eat it.

So how can we recognize the complex flavors of a good stew, and aged cheese or a bowl of exquisite ice cream? Our noses can recognize many thousands of distinct scents, and our noses and tongues work together to create tastes. Good chefs recognize this, and many farmers do, too. I recently read a book that contains interviews with fine organic farmers who treasure their soil and what it imparts to the scents and flavors of the food they grow.

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This book recounts a wonderful journey across America visiting organic farmers.

That book by Michael Abelman is called “Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It”. Abelman, an experienced author and organic farmer in British Columbia, spent three months traveling around the States in a 15-year-old VW van. He went with his 23-year old son back in 2004. They camped out, ate local food and met with organic farmers, some of whom were growing food for the best restaurants in America.

There is much to love about this book: Abelman is a skilled writer and story teller, he is a talented photographer, and he is adventurous and inquisitive. Not only that, he included recipes from many of the farmers, and they all sound delicious and mostly vegetarian.

Each of these farmers he wrote about had a unique approach to farming. One let weeds grow rampant. Another had fields that were weed free and managed with “precision, control, formal science and discovery.” But all ate their own food, fresh from the field or in the field. And each interview gave me something to think about, and perhaps to apply to my garden.

One of the most startling interviews was with Bob Cannard in Sonoma, Calif. Raised on a farm, Bob went to agriculture school but dropped out and started his own farm. When starting out, Bob grappled with this question: Why are natural places naturally healthy, while the fields and orchards of commercial agriculture are a continual battleground with weeds, insects and diseases?

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I grow and eat potatoes of several colors.

His approach to farming was to try to mimic nature, weeds and all. He believed that plants that struggle to survive would develop more complex flavors: a belief later adopted by some wine makers. He believed that a monoculture, acres of the same crop, encouraged insect pests to arrive and necessitate insecticides. He succeeded as a farmer, selling vegetables to Chez Panisse and other high-end restaurants in San Francisco.

I was fascinated to read the section on Strafford Organic Creamery in Vermont. Earl Ransom has a small herd of Guernsey cows and bottles their milk in glass bottles and makes fabulous ice cream, which I know and love. Ransom believes that he gets wonderful flavors by letting his cows graze in pastures with a variety of grasses, wildflowers and weeds. Diversity in the field creates better milk, he says, and the fat in milk absorbs flavor.

The book provides the names of many varieties of vegetables that are exceptional. Organic farmers Gene and Eileen Thiel of Joseph, Oregon specialize in potatoes, and particularly likes LaRatte, Yagana and Sante. Sante, he said, is like a Yukon Gold, but bigger. Yukon Gold also got high marks, as did Ranger Russets and Yellow Finn. He avoids losing his crop to blights, in part, by growing lots of different kinds of potatoes as did the Incas, where potatoes came from. Of course there is no guarantee that a potato that does well in Oregon will do well for you.

Abelman, a farmer for decades mentions some of his own favorite vegetable varieties. For sweet peppers he likes Ariane, Red Lipstick (I want to grow it, if just for that name) and Corno di Toro. Then there is the Charentais melon, about which he waxes poetic.

Of beans, some of the varieties mentioned as excellent include Valentine and Sophia flageolet shell beans, Maine Yellow Eye, Vermont Cranberry and Red Streaked Borllotto. According to the book, thin-skinned dry beans are easier on the digestive system: “the skins harbor the chemistry that causes digestive problems.”

It’s time for all of us to be studying seed catalogs and seed websites to pick the vegetables we’ll grow this year. I’ll be referring to Abelman’s book for new varieties, but also going back to my old favorites.