May 13, 2013
Walnuts, like almonds, avocados, flax seeds and other things rich in good oils and antioxidants, are among the rising stars of the American whole foods health craze. But it never took a good word from Dr. Oz or Oprah to make this nut a favorite in the Périgord region of southern France, where walnuts have flourished for centuries. Mature orchards line the highways and carpet the Dordogne River floodplain, plots of sapling twigs sprout their first year’s leaves in adjacent plots, trees blossom with the promise of a bumper autumn crop, and heaps and heaps of nuts are sold in bulk in virtually every single market. Deeper inside the local shops and households, one finds other things walnut–including fresh-pressed oil and whiskey-strong walnut booze. And following the road signs of the “Route de la Noix,” a meandering circuit of small highways through the woods, travelers discover the Périgord’s most prolific walnut country–and along this route are walnut oil presses, walnut museums, distilleries, and places to taste the Périgord’s variety of other walnut products. I, as it happens, am on vacation here, and for at least a few days I’m disregarding the region’s foie gras, truffles and wine and, instead, am making this visit to the Dordogne Valley a walnut tasting tour.
Here are five ways I’ve recently learned to enjoy this rising superstar of nuts:
1. Drink it: Eau-de-vie de noix. This liqueur–translated into something like “firewater of walnut”– begins as brandy, distilled from wine, but gains its distinguishing marks through several weeks of sitting on mashed-up walnuts. The final product, which may never touch an oak barrel, is usually just faintly yellow with a subtle candy-like nuttiness. The drink is dry–unsweetened–and usually weighs in at about 42 percent alcohol by volume. (Don’t get it mixed up with drinks like vin de noix, eau de noix or liqueur de noix, discussed below.) Drink eau-de-vie de noix straight or on the rocks to best savor its subtle essence–and in the name of France’s cherished food-and-drink traditions, keep the expensive bottle away from that hair-gelled mixologist friend of yours.
2. Drink It, Part II: Walnut wine. You’ll see this billed as “vin de noix” in the Perigord, yet the product is grape-based, made from straight red wine that sits on macerated green walnuts (harvested in the summertime, when bitter and scarcely edible) for several weeks before being sweetened with sugar and sometimes spiked with brandy or vodka. Many households make this drink, as do inns where it may be served to guests. Relatively little is labeled and sold commercially, but visitors to the Dordogne Valley (it occurs in Italy and the Balkans, too) will have little trouble finding a glassful. Walnut wine usually runs about 16 percent alcohol by volume. But those who read bottle labels will observe that a similar product called “eau de noix” runs 18 percent, and that another labeled as “liqueur de noix” measures about 30. They are different renditions of the same recipe. Speaking of which, walnut wine is almost stupid-easy to make yourself; you need just green walnuts, wine, sugar, brandy and a few weeks.
3. Drizzle It: Walnut oil. This is one of those oils that can be so delicious that one hates to do anything with it much more complicated than sipping it from a spoon. It is a product of the autumn, when the walnuts fall by the tons and tons throughout the Périgord. Many farmers rake up at least part of their crop and bring it to the local oil maker. Here, a grinding mill–sometimes decades old–smashes the nuts, rendering a honey-golden juice that comes gurgling out into jugs. Often the walnuts are toasted before being ground, though some farmers of less traditional tendencies are now “cold-pressing” the nuts for a subtler, softer oil–and supposedly with more health benefits. You may find roasted walnut oil to be superior. It is fragrant, rich, warm and toasty. Don’t even think of blending it with balsamic (even though the locals often do, perhaps since they have all they can use), and if you must make a dressing with it, go easy on the vinegar. Also, don’t use walnut oil for cooking, as high temperatures can supposedly annihilate its purported health benefits and burn away its aromas. The best ways to taste walnut oil may be to drizzle it over couscous, charcuterie, a runny egg yolk or a steaming plate of whole-grain bulgur.
4. Eat It: Walnut Bread. The humble baguette may be the oven-made star of the French boulangerie–but walnut bread is better. Produced year-round and available in most good bakeries, walnut bread–sometimes made with whole wheat for a richer, fuller flavor–is often baked into a round loaf with a hard crust, and the nuts are inevitably toasted. Layer a slice with cheese–or drizzle it with walnut oil.
5. Spread it: Walnut cheese. Another specialty of the Périgord, walnut cheese may be encountered as a sticky Tomme-like substance called Echourgnac, made at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Good Hope and soaked in walnut liquor. This treatment produces a strong-tasting and smoky scent–almost like cured anchovies–yet subtle in the walnut spectrum of flavors. One must consciously wish to taste walnut to believe he actually can–but the label of the Trappe Echourgnac, a 14-ounce walnut cheese wheel, verifies that, indeed, the stuff is bathed in “liqueur de noix.” Want a crunchier experience? Try Gourmandise, a blended cheese studded with crumbled walnuts.
April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
March 26, 2013
These days, the classic wedge salad—wherein the chef smothers a chunk of crisp Iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese dressing, and crumbles bacon all over the top—is seen as a cornerstone of American “comfort food.”
The dish is also often credited with single-handedly causing an “Iceberg comeback.” All of this raises the question: Did this crisp salad green, the “polyester of lettuce,” really go so far away that it needed to come back? And if so, can one menu item really make a difference?
But first a note—for those who aren’t old enough to remember—about just how ubiquitous Iceberg lettuce once was. Introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s, Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country travel (the name Iceberg comes from the piles of ice they would pack the light green lettuce heads in before the advent of the refrigerated train car). Therefore, throughout the middle of the century, unless you grew your own or dined in a high-end establishment, iceberg essentially was lettuce.
Most of the nation’s lettuce is grown in California, and in 1974, leafy green “non-crisphead” varieties of lettuce still made up only around five percent of the total acres grown in California. Then things changed. For one, consumers became more aware of the nutritional value of greens that are, well, greener. (Made of a high percentage of water, iceberg has only around 1/20th the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.)
America’s everyday lettuce for half a century was losing market share. By 1995, other lettuce varieties made up to around 30 percent of the lettuce American’s ate, and it has been rising steadily since, according to the California Leafy Greens Research Programs (a salad industry group). That’s precisely why, by 2007, the Salinas, California-based Tanimura and Antle—the nation’s largest lettuce supplier—decided it needed to start promoting Iceberg. And rather than compete with varieties that have more flavor or nutrition, Tanimura and Antle went straight for nostalgia, and opted to draw a connection to steaks, fathers, and sports. A press release from the time reads:
Mother’s Day has strawberries, Thanksgiving has celery, but historically no holiday has been associated with Iceberg lettuce,” says Antle. “What better product to claim ownership of Father’s Day than the cornerstone salad of steakhouse menus?
Wal-Mart, Albertsons, and several other big retailers hung signs and banners promoting the campaign, and sales got a boost. The company also planted wedge salad recipes around the food media world, in hopes that they would inspire chefs to return to this American Classic.
It’s hard to say whether the Father’s Day angle made a difference, but the larger effort to reconnect to Iceberg to simpler times with fewer complicated health choices appears to have worked. Sort of.
On the one hand, chefs like the fact that Iceberg is a completely neutral way to add crunch and filler to an otherwise flavorful medley of ingredients. So it appears that this classic salad will be sticking around on menus for a while. (Last fall the San Francisco Chronicle ran a list of nearly a dozen upscale restaurants serving some variation on the wedge salad, including everything from croutons, to apple, walnuts, and avocado. One Napa restaurant even serves it with the Iceberg frozen for extra crispness.)
On the production level, however, Iceberg may never return to it’s reigning position. It’s a little cheaper to grow and has long been easy to ship and store (the name Iceberg is said to come from the way the round lettuces were shipped by train in big piles of ice), but it has a hard time standing up to romaine, butter, and all the other specialty greens that have become popular in recent years.
This also appears to be true outside the U.S. In 2011, for example, UK-based Telegraph declared: “The era of Iceberg lettuce is over,” as “bagged leaf varieties such as [arugula] and watercress are up by 37 per cent compared to last year.” Of course, it may never be hard to find Iceberg lettuce in fast food tacos and Sizzler salad bars. But the decline of Iceberg might also signal some good news for Americans’ diets.
“Iceburg sales have gone down, but romaine has gone up,” says Mary Zischke from the California Leafy Greens Research Programs. “Tastes have changed. And the darker, leafy greens have a better story to tell from a nutrition standpoint.”
Compared to 20 years ago, Zischke added, “there are a lot more choices. Especially in some parts of the country, like the Midwest.” Overall, she’s glad to report that: “The product mix has changed, but our [greens] industry has also gotten bigger.”
March 20, 2013
The most-visited tourist attraction in the state of Hawaii is the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (also known as the Pearl Harbor bombing site). The second most visited attraction is about 20 miles north: the Dole pineapple plantation. In peak season between March and July, this tropical fruit evokes the 50th state in the Union for many. It’s a strange notion considering that, of the 300 billion pineapples farmed worldwide, only 400 million come from Hawaii. That’s only .13 percent. And while it’s true that Hawaii was once the big kahuna in global pineapple production, it’s an American industry that had a meteoric rise and fall over the course of the 20th century.
While its exact origins have yet to be determined, botanists agree that the pineapple originated in the Americas, most likely in the region where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet [PDF]. As to how the plant arrived, and was domesticated, in Hawaii is apocryphal. Some sources point to Spanish sailor Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who arrived in the Islands in the early 1790s. In addition to serving as an interpreter for King Kamehameha I, Marin had a reputation for being an ace horticulturalist credited with introducing citrus and mangoes to the island nation. He does, however, provide us with the first written record of this fruit in the New World, the simple January 1813 diary entry: “This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.”
But to enjoy pineapple meant you had to buy local. In the age before refrigerated transportation, ripened fruit spoiled easily during shipment to the mainland, resulting in high losses of product. Even if pineapple were shipped green, the premature harvesting severely impacted the flavor. The 19th-century development of canning technology provided the much-needed, failsafe delivery mechanism for the fruit; however, high tariffs placed on the good exported to the mainland from Hawaii caused the first canning companies to fold. The Hawaiian pineapple industry wouldn’t take a turn for the better until the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 after the Spanish American War and the arrival of 22-year-old Massachusetts native James Dole the following year.
Despite knowing nothing about canning, Dole opened the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, which the local press begged as being “a foolhardy venture.” And in its early years, it did indeed operate at a loss. However, Dole invested in developing new technologies—notably hiring a local draughtsman to develop machinery that could peel and process 100 pineapples a minute. He was also savvy to the power of advertising. Banding together with other local growers, Dole mounted an aggressive nationwide advertising campaign to make consumers aware of his product.
Dole was certainly not the first to introduce pineapple to the mainland American market. Rather, his business savvy and the economic conditions of the times allowed him to champion the fruit. Pineapple was cultivated in Florida, but recurring frosts destroyed the crops and what survived was of sub-par quality. Baltimore had a canning industry, but its fresh fruits were imported from the Bahamas, which heightened production costs due to importation taxes. With the combination of ideal growing conditions, the consolidation of cultivation and production and advertising that asserted the superiority of Hawaiian pineapple over all competitors, Hawaii was poised to dominate the canned pineapple trade. And it did. By the 1920s, it developed into a culinary fad, most notably in the form of upside down cake. (Author Sylvia Lovegreen collects a number of recipes from this era, from classic to questionable, in her book Fashionable Food.)
By 1923, Dole was the largest pineapple packer in the world. The agricultural sector took note and pineapple industries sprung up on other islands. Between 1930 and 1940, Hawaii dominated the canned pineapple industry and at its mid-century peak, eight companies were in operation and employed about 3,000 people. After World War II, the canned pineapple industry spread to other parts of the world, namely Thailand and the Philippines. Not only did these countries provide an ideal environment for growing, but labor costs were significantly lower. (Where U.S. labor accounted for about half of the cost of production, ranging between $2.64 and $3.69 per hour, compared to the 8 to 24 cents per hour paid to Filipino workers.)
The Hawaiian industry began to collapse in the 1960s. In response, the industry tried to focus on growing and shipping fresh fruit with faster, refrigerated means of transportation now readily available. Additionally, the development of the pesticide DBCP in the 1950s was invaluable to the industry as a means of protecting the pineapple tree’s root systems from attacks by ground worms (the EPA would ban the chemical in the late 1970s).But those innovations weren’t enough. Dole’s Honolulu cannery closed in 1991 and competitor Del Monte moved production out of islands in 2008.
The state’s pineapple industry currently exists primarily to satisfy local demands, much as it did before the arrival of James Dole. It is, however, worth noting the one element we lose with pineapple produced on a global industrial scale: flavor, or rather, variations thereof. Chances are, the fresh pineapple you find in your supermarket is the MD-2 cultivar, a hybrid developed because it’s sweet, low in acid and not susceptible to browning when refrigerated—a common problem in the Smooth Cayenne, which had been Hawaii’s industry standard variety cultivated since the 1880s. But there’s a host of other varieties that come in different shapes, sizes, colors and flavor profiles.
Dissatisfied with the taste of fresh, industrially-produced pineapple, the husband and wife team of Craig and Lisa Bowden developed their own variety that evoked the flavors of fruit they enjoyed in their youth. Together, they founded Hawaiian Crown, an independently-owned company in Honolulu. Though just a 20-person operation, Hawaiian Crown has not only carved out a niche for itself in the local farmer’s markets, but is finding distribution in grocery stores. Although the fruits of Hawaiian Crown’s labors are currently available only on the islands, here’s hoping that a new wave of pineapple innovation can re-invogorate an American industry.
Taylor, Ronald. “Hawaii Study Links DBCP to Reproductive Problems.” LA Times, 28 November 1980, pg. B31.
February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”