Can agricultural practices change how food tastes?

Food should taste good. Humans have evolved to enjoy the taste of a variety of nutrient-dense foods that inhabit the planet. Sun-ripened tomatoes, fragrant basil, well nourished livestock, and sweet blueberries are among the delicious foods which comprise the living bounty that supports our growth and well being.

This post is an argument for understanding the way we grow our food. It is a plea to question the source of our vegetables, meats, fruits, and grains. By blindly filling our bodies with products from factories, we lose sight of the source, and more importantly, lose nutrition.

What if the way we farm our food can have a notable affect on the way it tastes? Farmers have experimented with this notion for centuries, but with the advent of modern, large scale agricultural practices, the urban public has forgone the art culinary farming in exchange for the convenience and cost efficiency of grocery stores. While this shift has allowed farmers to feed more people, there’s a beauty in exploring the practices that can enhance the taste and nutrition of our foods. That beauty is slowly disappearing, and I’m interested in bringing it back.

This post is largely a nod to Dan Barber, a chef and agriculture specialist, who believes that the road to a great-tasting meal doesn’t start in the kitchen, but rather on the farm, in understanding the conditions under which our food-to-be lives and grows.

In a guest lecture during an edX course, “Science & Cooking,” Dan discusses the experimental agriculture that he oversees at Blue Hill Farm in New York. His goal is to test variables that impact the flavor of the foods we eat, before we even cook them. While it requires more effort and the yield is lower due to the scope of the farm, his practices also improve nutrition and reduce waste. As a restaurateur, however, his main goal is taste.

He cites several interesting examples of improving his crops. For example, he uses biochar, a solid charred organic material that is packed with vitamins, to enhance the soil. He finds that it enhances the flavor of artichokes noticeably. The farm also practices livestock rotation, where chickens and cows take turns on plots of land to break up manure and fertilize the soil, a practice that might not fit into the logistics of a large scale livestock farm. The farmers also control the bacteria levels in their compost by varying temperature. The USDA says you must reach 142 degrees to kill bad bacteria, and most operations go way above this, to be safe. However, at 167, a lot of good bacteria is killed. By maintaining a specific temperature range, food quality can be improved while keeping food safe to consume.

The farm is also into flavor infusions, which can lead to an exotic and delicious dining experience. After a large supply of lobsters was used for a menu, the group composted the shells, then grew potatoes in the soil. The result? Lobster flavored potatoes. In another experiment, Dan received the residue from hazelnuts after another farmer had pressed them for oil. Dan planted this residue with celtuse (a type of lettuce), and the result was a vegetable that, when broken open, had a distinct nutty flavor from the infusion.

The efforts and logistics of this operation mean that you likely won’t see lobster potatoes, hazelnut celtuse or biochar boosted artichokes at your local grocery store. However, these are practices that could be mimicked on the small scale of a micro farm. The improvements in efficiency, nutrition, and flavor are achievements that are realizable; they open a window into new culinary opportunities and improve appreciation for the farming practice.

As Dan Barber puts it, “The difference in flavor, it’s not small.”





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