Never mind the flavour ... just savour the pretty colours

Cabbage catwalk: are we tired of flavourless supermarket vegetables, or are looks just as important?

What do we consumers want from our vegetables? Taste may seem to be the obvious answer, but the truth is much more complex.

It's no coincidence that supermarkets give their produce sections pride of place right by the entrance. Those multi-coloured displays of sleek, shiny fruit and vegetables are intended to give an instant impression of freshness, health and cleanliness.

We've come to expect our vegetables to be scrubbed clean of the evidence of their earthy origins, to have smooth, wrinkle-free skins, the brightest of complexions and uniformly perfect figures.

The growers, meanwhile, have their own list of requirements. To them vegetables must be high yield in order to be cheap and plentiful, fast- growing, resistant to disease, long lasting and easy to clean and package, which means conforming to strict rules about size and shape.

But with all these often conflicting demands on our poor old peas and cabbages, something has to be sacrificed in the mix. All too often, that something is flavour.

Those with vested interests will deny it hotly, but we all know from personal experience what it is like to take home the plumpest tomato or the crispiest cabbage, only to find it tastes limp, watery and bland.

Only this week master chef Jean Conil - president of the Epicurean Master Chef's Society - claimed the customer was being held to ransom over the quality of food by the supermarket chains.

"Of course taste has taken second place," says Jackie Gear, a food writer and director of the Henry Doubleday Research Association, a charity dedicated to organic gardening. "If that wasn't the case why would supermarkets now be introducing labels on foods like tomatoes saying 'Specially selected for flavour'? Surely that should be taken for granted!"

"It may be true that in the past the pursuit of appearance meant flavour tended to be ignored," concedes David Sawday, corporate affairs manager of Tesco. "This is a very competitive business. We only survive by giving our customers what they want, and the truth is that appearance is very important".

"One factor is that the range of vegetables available to us remains limited," says Bob Sherman, who is gardens curator at the Henry Doubleday Research Association.

"Supermarkets probably only offer five or six varieties of carrots, perhaps three early varieties and three main crops," he says. "They may taste OK, but if you have never had the experience of a wide selection, you don't have anything to compare that taste with.

"They also don't give you any information at all about them on the label, so you don't know what you are buying. When you're buying wine, you don't just look for a red or a white, so why should you have to with vegetables? I understand that people don't want to be overloaded with information, but it would be nice to know a little bit, like the variety and where it came from.

"It isn't a deliberate con by the supermarkets. It's just that when you have four huge corporations competing, they are going to take things to their logical conclusion, fighting to produce the cheapest and the best looking.

"The result is that the public have been educated wrongly to think that vegetables should look a certain way. For instance we all think carrots should be orange. But wild carrots are actually white and it's only selective breeding over 100 years that has turned them orange - along the way there have been all shades of red and purple carrots. The seeds for these are still available, but you never see them normally. "

This limited choice may be partly our own fault. A spokesman for the Brassica Growers' Association points out that there are many vegetables the public simply don't want to eat. "We tend to be awfully conservative," he says. "For instance, when did you last buy a celeriac? And would you know what to do with a kohl rabi? Both are delicious British vegetables, but shoppers are creatures of habit and don't want to try them."

David Sawday agrees: "We do offer information on some vegetables, on potatoes for example, where different varieties have a different purpose - baking, chipping etc, but our research has shown our customers don't want too much information," he says. "We would like to offer other varieties, such as coloured cauliflowers, but there may be problems - for instance green varieties might be perceived as unripe. We have to give people what they want and they like white cauliflowers!"

He does, however, detect a change in public mood. "There is a tremendous swing towards more healthy and organic foods and towards taste.

Appearance still counts - but these days it has to eat good as well as look good," he says.

Tesco, in common with its competitors, is responding to this change by offering a much wider choice of organic foods. The company has also taken a lead by "level-pegging" the prices of these foods in 120 of their stores with the prices of their conventional counterparts.

Britain is way behind its European neighbours when it comes to organic foods. Here it makes up just 1 per cent of the total market, whereas in countries like Austria it has risen to 10 per cent. But demand is growing.

"Fresh organic fruit or vegetables produced professionally under the same conditions as conventional produce will always taste better," says Peter Segger, managing director of Organic Farm Foods Ltd. "The organic produce has been allowed to grow at its own pace rather than being forced with the use of chemical feeds. Organic carrots, for instance, will have around three weeks longer in the soil than conventional ones. This means they take up water at a slower rate and develop a higher fibre or carbon content, which is what gives them flavour.

"On the other hand," he admits, "a grotty old dried up organic vegetable sitting outside some wholefood shop is going to taste worse than a fresh conventional vegetable."

Poor presentation is now becoming a thing of the past as companies like Organic Farm Foods - which supplies most of the top supermarkets - ensure their products match up in the looks department.

"People are used to vegetables looking a certain way, so we have to compromise," says Segger. "Old-fashioned open-pollenated traditional varieties taste better than the new hybrids, but don't look as good. To achieve a balance we have had to mix the two."

So what are the main problems - and the solutions?

Pesticides

People aren't just choosing organic foods only for their taste but also for what they consider their safety. Organic is a term protected by EC law, which means the produce is free of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. 25,000 tons of these chemicals are used in this country every year, and the Soil Association say more than half of them have been known to be harmful, causing illnesses ranging from birth defects to cancer.

Organisations representing conventional growers insist that much of the industry no longer uses these chemicals, and are instead moving towards more natural methods of pest control, such as traps to stop the pests reaching the vegetables, and protecting crops by covering them with agricultural fleece.

The Government claims that in 25 years, no one has reported any ill effects from the use of pesticides. However, its own figures have shown that a wide range of foods - including milk, fruit and vegetables - have been found to contain residues of these chemicals .

Since The Independent campaigned on this issue 18 months ago, the official advice is to take care. With carrots, for example, which have been shown to take up a high degree of pesticides, we are advised to top, tail and peel them before eating.

Beating the seasons

Once it was accepted that crops were seasonal, but today we expect vegetables to be available all year round. The result is that there is pressure on growers to force their crops using chemical feeds, and to grow "back-to- back" crops, which causes the build-up of pests such as carrot fly and diseases, which leads to an even greater use of pesticides. It can also cause soil erosion and strip the land of nutrients.

"Because they use natural methods, organic farmers simply can't push their systems as hard as this," says a Soil Association spokesman.

The future

The frightening news is the approach of so-called Frankenstein foods - crops such as corn and soya beans - which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to weed killer and antibiotics and even capable of killing insects.

The producers insist they are safe, but as Greenpeace point out: "No one knows for sure the effect these new life forms will have on our environment. We have never before eaten these ingredients in the human diet. How do they know they are safe?"

Across Europe there is huge resistance to the importing of these foods from America - particularly soya, which is used in 60 per cent of our processed foods - and in Britain, supermarket chains are lining up either to ban them altogether, or to insist that foods using these ingredients are clearly labelled.

The good news, meanwhile, is that our organic options are growing fast. While supermarkets used to report that customers simply didn't want organic foods, Sainsbury's claimed last month that demand from customers is now so far ahead of supply that the company is trying to persuade its conventional suppliers to switch to organic.

Meanwhile, Elgro, a company of 36 farmers in Lincolnshire, announced last week that it intends switching some of its land to organic use. Under Soil Association rules, it takes at least two years before land can be declared free of chemicals and food produced from it can be labelled organic. In the past, British farmers have been reluctant to make this switch because of the losses they suffer during conversion.

However, the Government is this year encouraging them to switch by doubling the funds available to compensate them for these losses, and the Labour Party has promised to seek a "greatly expanded" programme of support from the EU.

Grow it yourself

Whatever the pros and cons of buying vegetables, the tastiest option is still growing your own. Anyone with a bit of land can do it, says gardening broadcaster Pippa Greenwood.

"If you've never done it before, first arm yourself with a good book - I recommend The Vegetable Garden Displayed, by Joy Larkcom - and a few seed catalogues," she advises. "Then prepare your soil thoroughly before sowing. Ideally this would have begun a couple of months ago, but it isn't too late to start now. Clear it of perennial weeds, then mix in plenty of organic compost or well rotted manure - BSE has made some people wary of cow manure, but stable manure is perfectly safe."

There are now seeds for all seasons, but the next few weeks is the time to sow early potatoes and carrots and what are called second early peas, all of which will be ready to eat in summer. Meanwhile cabbage can be grown outdoors from April. "They do take up more space, but there is nothing to stop you just growing six cabbages if you want to," says Pippa. "As with all the vegetables, what variety you choose depends on what you want from it - whether you want a green leafy cabbage for instance, or one with a firm head which is ideal for making coleslaw. Studying the catalogue or seed packet will tell you all you need to know."

Make sure your growing vegetables have adequate moisture, and even the amateur gardener should be rewarded with a worthwhile crop in summer. Most commonly available seeds have been dressed to repel birds or to boost their chances of success, and while Pippa says these dressings are fairly harmless, you may prefer to seek out the harder to find organic seeds.

The Henry Doubleday Research Association have a free enquiry pack, which you can obtain by sending a large stamped addressed envelope to HDRA, Ryton on Dunsmore, Coventry CV8 3LG.

'The New Kitchen Garden' by The 'Independent's' Anna Pavord is published by Dorling Kindersley (pounds 16.99).

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