Why fruits and vegetables taste better in Europe – Vox
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In the summer of 2000, I had an encounter with pasta that changed my perception of food.
I was 16 and visiting family in a rural backwater in northeastern Italy. At a modest hotel restaurant, I ordered a plate of spaghetti with cherry tomatoes. The dish was revelatory. Despite the simple ingredients — pasta, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt — it was densely packed with flavor. The tomatoes had the perfect ratio of sweetness to acidity, tasting nothing like the watery produce I was used to in North America.
I’ve since learned that many people have similar experiences while traveling around the Mediterranean. In Italy (or France or Spain or Turkey), they’ll find palate-awakening tomatoes (or watermelons or peaches or lemons) — and then wonder why food doesn’t taste nearly as good in the United States. Why does Europe get amazing produce while we’re left with pabulum?
I wanted to figure out why Americans seem to be cheated of these experiences, so I spoke to researchers who study agriculture, experts on flavor, and even cooks to find out.
I was surprised to hear that there’s no scientific explanation for the difference. There’s nothing special about the sun in southern Italy or the soil in Turkey that makes those countries’ produce taste better. The experts told me we can just as easily grow food in the United States that’s as delicious as — or more delicious than — the food you eat in Europe. It’s just that most of the time, we choose not to. The main difference between the food here and there, they all said, is culture and preferences.
American farmers put an emphasis on yield and durability, not flavor
Harry Klee, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida, spent years developing a nutrient-dense tomato that also happens to taste great. It’s been called — by a panel of 500 experts — one of the most delicious tomatoes on the planet. And it isn’t grown in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius, as Italy’s famous San Marzano tomatoes are. It’s grown right here in the US, in Gainesville, Florida.
Klee’s tomato, the Garden Gem, is also eminently durable, with a great shelf life and track record of disease resistance — properties growers care about. But he’s been told the Garden Gem is a little too small (about a half or a third the size of your average supermarket tomato). And that means it’d require more labor to pick, and therefore a little more cost. The fact that it’s delicious doesn’t count for much.
“The bottom line here with the industrial tomatoes is that tomatoes have been bred for yield, production, disease resistance,” Klee told me. “The growers are not paid for flavor — they are paid for yield. So the breeders have given them this stuff that produces a lot of fruit but that doesn’t have any flavor.”
That’s why you see gigantic strawberries and fist-size apples on the store shelves. Since Americans like their produce big, and big fruit is more efficient to grow, growers do everything they can to supersize their fruit, even at the expense of flavor. (They do this through breeding, Klee added. Most fruits and vegetables in North America aren’t GMOs.)
Klee’s tomatoes are unlikely to reach store shelves in the United States. In fact, the only serious interest he’s gotten so far has been from a group in Italy that purchased 10,000 of his seeds. It’s not that great food can’t be grown in the United States. It’s that the market values other things — size, durability — over flavor.
This greatly distresses Klee. “I have a lot of worries, and one is that we are raising a whole generation of people who don’t know what a tomato is supposed to taste like,” he said. “If they go to Italy and buy a tomato at a roadside stand, it’s a life-changing event.” For now most Americans are stuck with massive, perfectly red, eminently tasteless tomatoes.
American shoppers favor access over seasonality
Cooking with seasonal produce is often regarded by the best chefs as the key to more flavorful meals. But, whether for financial reasons or time constraints, Americans seem to want their produce available at all months of the year.
That inevitably has an impact on taste. Buying out of season means the produce has to be picked long before it has ripened and then shipped very long distances from the southern United States, or Mexico, or Central America. That journey can batter the flavor out of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Consider broccoli. Its stem holds a lot of sweetness — something you can taste if you eat it shortly after picking. But if the broccoli is left at room temperature for a long time (say, to be shipped), then that sweetness quickly disappears, explained Cornell horticulture researcher Thomas Björkman. This “post-harvest handling” — the way produce is treated after it’s plucked — can greatly affect how it tastes on your dinner table later.
Klee pointed out that Europe also has out-of-season produce in its stores. The difference is that locals will generally demand and pay for better quality. “The Italians, probably more than anybody, have a higher standard,” he said. “At their best, they’re only getting their tomatoes in season. But the reality is that most Americans don’t like seasonality. We’ve developed a system to give people in the northern US a tomato in January.”
The US government regulates for safety — but not quality
One of my cousins, an Italian émigré in Canada, takes the time every year to buy a couple of butchered pigs and, over a period of several days, turn them into the most perfect charcuterie you’ve ever tasted.
The process is meticulous — he learned it in northern Italy as a child. When I visited him to watch his annual ritual (for a profile in Maclean’s magazine) he told me that the slaughtered pigs can only become prosciutto and salami during the luna calante, the waning moon that follows the full moon. “If we don’t cure by the moon, the meat could go bad,” he said then. This practice traces back to old farmer’s lore.
That may not be perfectly scientific, but it’s an example of the kind of obsessive focus on food quality that Europeans are known for. And that obsession is reflected in Europe’s laws in a way that it’s not in the United States.
Gavin Lavi Sacks, a wine researcher at Cornell, contrasted the experience of wine growers in the United States and France: “In the US, the primary concerns [of regulators] are safety and tax revenue as opposed to quality. In the EU, you have sub-regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy — and they each have rules about actual production practices.”
A winemaker can grow Merlot grapes anywhere in America. In Bordeaux, France, not only must he only use particular grapes blends, but he also has to follow specific production practices such as using oak barrels and aging the wine for certain amount of time.
The Italians have the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) system — a government-regulated quality assurance program for wine and food. If a tomato or pizza or bottle of olive oil carries the DOC seal of approval, that means it was made following traditional practices and that it consists of ingredients sourced from particular locations. (The Italians do, however, have a problem with people cheating the system.)
The Italian system was modeled on France’s AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée). That program dates back to the 1950s, around the time when Julia Child was complaining that French chickens tasted like teddy bear stuffing. Some enterprising farmers in France noticed that consumers wanted access to traditionally raised farm chickens, and the Label Rouge program was launched. “It’s not a brand name,” says Schatzker. “It’s a government controlled, regulated, and audited program.”
Label Rouge chickens are raised more slowly, in open air, with access to lots of pasture. They’re not fattened up on corn in industrial warehouses. There are also rules around pesticide and antibiotic use. The result is tastier chicken, the kind your grandmother was probably used to.
“I know these rules seem complex, medieval or bourgeois. But the truth is — they do take this stuff seriously,” said Schatzker. “They protect what they believe is not only cultural value but deliciousness value.”
“If you ask the question, ‘Why are the chocolates better in Belgium and Switzerland?’ it’s because locals demand it that way,” Schatzker added. “They don’t tolerate or want lower quality. And they get upset when people try to pass off inferior quality food as being good.”
Finding flavorful food is a matter of priorities
The biggest difference between Europe and the United States might be the shoppers themselves. I asked chef Massimo Bottura, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurateur, about Italian food customs. He took me back to Catherine de’ Medici in 16th-century Florence, and noted that “the culture of food is sewn into our DNA” and that “everything in Italy happens around the table.”
But his view was that there was plenty of excellent-tasting food in the United States — most of us just don’t seek it out. “To me, cooking in the US is very easy,” he said. He admitted that he brings Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar over from Italy — because he feels he can’t find the same quality here — but said he’s very happy with the produce in farmers markets and Whole Foods. He’s even made dishes at his restaurants in Italy inspired by his walks through Union Square Market in New York.
“A great chef knows when he’s traveling to use the technique to express the quality of the ingredients and not the quality of his own ego,” he said.
Maybe delicious produce is more readily and widely available in Italy because Italians won’t stand for anything less. Maybe French producers get more excited about their microclimates and terroir — and the impact those have on food and wine when they interact with local traditions — than American food producers do on average.
But as Bottura pointed out, you can also find delicious ingredients here in the United States. You can also grow incredible tomatoes very close to home. It’s just a matter of priorities.
Why fruits and vegetables taste better in Europe – Vox