Food & Drink: I fear the Dutch bearing veg: Planning a Mediterranean meal of tasty peppers? You're likely to end up with sun-starved frauds grown in chemicals, says Joanna Blythman
Dutch tomatoes should have been warning enough. We all know those mushy, flavourless balls of water, so it is hardly surprising that peppers and aubergines grown in the Netherlands' gloomy glasshouses are tasteless, too.
They would certainly disgrace any Mediterranean dish, and it is somewhat ironical that our enthusiasm for such cooking is dependent not on the production of sun-soaked southern Europe but on the prodigious and apparently infinite output of glasshouses in gloomy northern Europe.
If you have bought a pepper or aubergine in France, Italy or Spain - or any other country that grows them traditionally - you will know the difference. For a start, Dutch peppers are routinely the same size: squat, round and thick- fleshed. Southern European ones vary in size, and are often long, thin, slightly twisted and tapering, and the flesh is usually about half as thick.
Dutch aubergines are typically shaped like a pear, but those from Greece and Turkey, for example, tend to be longer, thinner, with bends and curves; they lack the Dutch version's aggressive sheen and their skin may not be of the standard colour.
What of the cooking? Try grilling a kebab with Dutch peppers and they are likely be hard long after the meat is thoroughly cooked. Have a go at roasting them and expect to double the standard cooking time before they soften. Sweat Dutch aubergines for a ratatouille and watch how they seem to be almost heat-resistent. The southern European equivalents are of a different order. They usually cook to a melt-in-the-mouth consistency and show an aptitude for softening, absorbing oil and other flavours.
The reality is that Dutch 'Mediterranean' produce does not look or cook or taste like it should. This is because, like all Dutch produce, it is designed for export. Apart from the Germans, the British import more food than anyone else and the UK is the Netherlands' second largest market for fruit and vegetables.
Dutch peppers and aubergines are classic products of the horticultural arrogance that permits growers to believe they can produce almost any vegetable in a totally artificial environment, without regard to season or local growing circumstances.
In the case of peppers, the first step is to select a variety that offers a standardised, visually 'perfect' product with a shelf-life of at least a fortnight. Each one must weigh about the same, so it can be sold individually without being weighed. The Dutch grow the cosmetic Californian 'bell' variety that has dominated the US market in preference to the more delicious, but irregular 'Clovis'-style pepper that is typical of southern Europe.
Most peppers are grown in soil, absorbing nutrients slowly and soaking up sun, but Dutch bell peppers are technically induced in totally artificial circumstances. Soil is dispensed with. Instead, they are planted in chemical substrates, essentially inert substances that merely support the roots as synthetically produced liquid nutrients, water and fungicides are pumped into them.
What do you end up with? A pepper deprived of sun, of the natural struggle to grow - a flavourless and thoroughly artificial creature, a mutant that has no claim to call itself 'natural'.
Lack of flavour is not a problem for growers, because the Dutch sell all their fruit and vegetables through an electronic auction system. Why should they care unduly if the men in suits, representing our supermarkets and fruit and vegetable importers, do not? The buyers sit at computer terminals bidding for huge quantities and never inspect the produce, let alone taste it. Ergo the product must be exactly the same, each day of each year.
In Germany, however, consumers have had enough. Alienation has become so acute after criticism from trade and food writers, that Dutch produce has been struck off many discerning shoppers' lists.
In an attempt to lose this image, Dutch growers have introduced a 'butterfly' label on their produce, which is meant to stand for 'environment-conscious cultivation'. This may sound reassuring, but according to Professor Jan Douwe Van der Ploeg of the Agricultural University of Wageningen, even in the Netherlands this label is already discredited.
'This butterfly business is just nonsense,' he says. 'It is going on nearly all produce and has been widely criticised here. This is because it cuts down pesticides, but still permits plenty of other inputs.
'There is a big struggle going on in horticulture in the Netherlands at the moment. There are groups of farmers, which are trying to grow food differently from the vast industrial sector and want to go back to growing in soil, choosing old, intrinsically flavoursome varieties - slow, not accelerated feeding. They have asked for a separate channel at the auctions through which to sell their produce, but so far this has been denied.
'The captains of industry think that the problems in image are just down to a few stupid Germans and British who have been fed with misinformation. For a long time the Netherlands thought that, in horticulture, it was the best in the world. So it has been slow to react to consumer trends for more natural, flavoursome food.'
So will the Dutch change? The government is sending out confusing messages. It has introduced strict (50 per cent) pesticide-reduction targets, but the official policy is to have all vegetable cultivation out of soil, in substrates.
In part, this is because the Netherlands faces serious environmental problems: its soil has been so intensively and inappropriately employed that it is highly polluted with toxic chemicals - a telling reminder of how vital it is to maintain the health of our soil.
In the meantime, we are left with the abominations that call themselves Mediterranean produce. Until the Dutch can offer us something that is not merely small and perfectly formed, we should join the Germans and suggest Dutch growers get back to basics. As it is, they would not know a proper pepper if jumped up and bit them.
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