Food for thought

When I moved to Glasgow a couple of years ago, I was struck by the same thought again and again: my dinner tastes like crap. Or rather, it didn’t taste of anything. Thick sirloin steaks didn’t really taste of steak, no matter how I cooked them; tomatoes were cold, but didn’t really have any flavour; even cheese – my great weakness – was bland and lifeless.

At first I wondered if I’d left my tastebuds back in Ayrshire, but when I started looking into the food I was eating I spotted one key difference. Before I moved to Glasgow most of the food I ate was local, so for example almost all of the meat I ate came from a local farm. When I moved to Glasgow, most of the food I ate came from supermarkets.

So I started looking at the labels of the food I was buying, and discovered that in many cases I was buying something that looked like food, but which was largely a collection of preservatives, colourings and water. Fruit and veg had been picked long before it was ripe and transported halfway around the world, which explained why it didn’t go off for a week but also explained why it didn’t taste right. I started reading up on the food industry and the supermarket industry, and learned what terms such as “reformed” and “mechanically recovered” meant; I read a few articles about the pesticides and chemicals in foodstuffs, the micro-organisms in milk and the regular health scares about factory farming. So I went organic.

There are three things you need to know about organic food. First, it’s much more expensive than supermarket “value” ranges. Secondly, it takes a lot more effort (so a weekly shop isn’t enough). And thirdly, it usually looks awful and tastes fantastic.

The first time I tried organic fruit, I ended up covered in juice – not because I have particularly sloppy eating habits, but because I was used to fruit that wasn’t particularly juicy or tasty. I had to learn how to cook bacon again, because I was used to chucking bacon into the pan, waiting for it to shrink and chucking more in. Organic bacon isn’t full of water, so it doesn’t shrink. I had to get used to shopping several times a week, because organic fruit and veg is ripe and therefore goes to mush in a couple of days. And I rediscovered my tastebuds, which had been largely unused for several months.

There’s another benefit to organic food, which is that by choosing organic you’re generally supporting smaller, local farms and shops instead of giving yet more cash to the supermarket chains. Don’t get me wrong, I still buy stuff from supermarkets – wine, toiletries, bread, the odd packet of crisps – but their power (and their effect on small shopkeepers) worries me. If you want a good scare, the non-fiction book “shopped” is worth reading.

I’m convinced that to future generations, our eating habits will seem insane – and I suspect that the health consequences of cheap (ie. adulterated) food will come back to haunt us.

5 thoughts on “Food for thought

  1. Squander Two says:

    As I understand it, what makes the food taste better isn’t that it’s “organic” (and there’s a bloody irritating bit of terminology — it’s not like I ever eat rocks or inert gases); it’s to do with the varieties of vegetables used and the methods used in preparing meat. So, for instance, the tastiest tomatoes are varieties with thin skins (crap for transporting), which don’t all ripen at the same time (crap for automated harvesting), which go off quickly (crap for shelf-life). Those varieties of tomatoes always taste better than the usual supermarket ones, regardless of whether they’re grown “organically”: cover them in pesticide, and they’re still dead tasty.

  2. Gary says:

    I agree with you about the term “organic” and with some of what you’re saying – the stuff you get in organic grocers generally tastes better because it hasn’t been picked early and selected for its ability to look good in a fridge for a week, and the lack of pesticides is a bonus – but I think there’s more to it than that. Particularly in the case of meat – the stuff in supermarkets is scarlet, but decent meat (particularly stuff that’s been hung) is a much darker colour. And the stuff you get in the value ranges is particularly full of water and generally poor quality.

  3. Gary says:

    I’d have thought it has more to do with shelf life. Surely organic farmers have to meet the same regulations as the supermarkets’ suppliers?

  4. Squander Two says:

    Yes. Possibly a combination of shelf life and hygiene regulations. I think some of it comes down to smaller firms being less likely to be inspected so regularly, so more willing to take risks. I don’t know how this applies to meat production, but I know that, to get your basic food hygiene certificate, you have to agree never to serve rare steak or home-made mayonnaise. I have to conclude that places that serve decent food are flaunting rules that they know are rarely if ever applied. Sainsbury’s lawyers might be more cautious.

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