Masterchef opened my eyes to the real meaning of flavour in the kitchen, but since childhood, I’ve always been aware of the taste of fruit. Most people can remember occasions of great tasting fruit: those sweet little Clementines at Christmas; bowls of irresistible summer cherries; juicy peaches making a mess of your clothes; fragrant, sweet strawberries; oranges that peel easily and taste heavenly. I could go on, but although I’m a fruit enthusiast, I don’t experience those pleasures very often: there is plenty of fruit to buy, but not plenty to get excited about.
But fruit can be exciting! Fruit is such a gift from nature that it’s a shame so much is bland and uninspiring. I want fruit that is irresistible, un-put-down-able. Enjoy fruit and eat more – it’s simple!
We all know the importance of fruit: we are bombarded with messages of health and well-being: Government policies; school lessons; lectures at the doctors’; 5-A-Day; supermarket leaflets; and innumerable magazine articles and TV programmes. So, we get the message: fresh produce is good for us. Yet the UK still has the lowest per capita consumption of fresh produce in Europe (e.g. Danes eat 150kg each per year: it’s about 30kg in the UK). There are many historical reasons for this, but I’m convinced that fruit consumption would go up if people actually enjoyed eating fruit.
So what’s stopping us? Supermarkets have done a great job at offering choice, quality, availability and value, but, I don’t think it is about these things. I think we consume little fruit because we don’t enjoy the taste enough.
People often complain that fruit doesn’t taste like it ‘used too’, and there are big influences that have contributed to a greater degree of ‘blandness’ in fruit flavour. Before the rise of the supermarket, fruit was only really available ‘in season’. By definition, this meant that fruit was at its cheapest and best to eat because the varieties grown would ripen at the natural time for that particular fruit type. Now we have most fruit almost all year. Increasing availability means using early or late maturing varieties, and buying from different growing regions. Early and late varieties of fruit often do not have the same eating quality as the main peak season varieties, and importing fruit means it has to last longer. Although there are many successes, lasting longer means developing varieties that last, often at the expense of taste, and harvesting fruit earlier, again at the expense of taste.
There is also the quest for low costs. Growers come under pressure to reduce costs so want more from their land in higher yields or lower costs of growing. This can be achieved by breeding high yielding varieties, or by improving farming techniques, neither of which are necessarily the friend of taste.
Then there are demands made by legislators and customers alike, asking for minimal pest control. There has been huge progress in this area, but variety choice is also an answer. Varieties can be bred to be resistant to pests and diseases, so need fewer chemicals, but again, often the compromise is taste.
Most growers would love to produce great tasting fruit, so the fresh produce industry is aware of these issues. Growers, supermarkets and breeders have started to concentrate on taste, so there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, in the meantime, although there is always irresistible fruit available, there is still a lot of uninspiring fruit on sale. Consumers are often quite unaware and need help to find the best: perhaps then we will see a rise in consumption to lift us off the bottom of the European league!