From the farm to the freezer, freshness is a paragon pickled in history
ANOTHER box of organically grown fruit and vegetables has arrived on my doorstep, along with an astronomical bill. People who subscribe to this London service get produce grown locally and seasonally in Britain, which means the goodies in the box follow nature’s schedule rather than the trade routes passing through Heathrow airport.
The bottom line in this service is fresh, a lure that is problematic. What exactly does fresh mean?
To people living in pre-freezer, prerefrigerator times, fresh connoted waste. The logic of pre-industrial farming dictated selling what you could not eat immediately. But this market logic often broke down; so slow and inefficient were 17th-century markets, for instance, that apples picked in south Somerset in November were rotten by the time they arrived in London in February.
Pre-industrial cooking therefore focused on the techniques of preserving foods, such as canning, salting and drying; these techniques still influence our tastebuds.
Take salt. Since medieval times, salt has been used as a preservative, by dry-curing meat or brining fish. While the human animal needs some salt in food to replace what is lost by bodily perspiration, the use of salt became so heavy-handed that it blurred, in time, the distinction between fresh and preserved.
Hot chillies originated in other cultures as a means of disguising fresh ingredients that had gone off; to a Mexican child, tomatoes served without the capsaicin alkaloid, which makes ground or chopped chillies hot, do not taste fresh.
The refrigerator should have corrected the tastes formed in pre-industrial times, but we haven’t used these machines as well as we might.
Refrigerated plastic bags of supposedly fresh salad leaves sold in supermarkets, for instance, are often gassed with chlorine, the oxygen then sucked out of the bags into which the leaves are packed. The result is nutrient-erosion.
Purist foodies are equally suspicious of frozen raw foods. I amnot.
Fresh-frozen petits pois (young, small peas frozen within six hours of being picked) will retain their nutrients and their natural sugars; whether they taste fresh or not depends on what you do when you thaw them.
The cooking instructions on the packet tell you to bring the petits pois to a boil. Never follow this instruction. Freezing has altered the inner fabric of each pea, and the pea is too weak to withstand boiling.
We may think of fresh as straight-out-ofthe-ground produce, which is why my box of organic vegetables is so expensive, but for many foods this time frame does not apply. Olive oil has a truly long life as fresh, but it does not possess eternal life. Let’s say the label says Alpha Zeta Olive Oil Extra Virgin DOP Valpolicella Venezia 2005. The phrase extra virgin does not refer to the sex life of the olive. Rather, the virgin bit tells you the oil has been produced simply by crushing the whole olive, pit included, mechanically without any heat applied (thus virgin means cold-pressed). The extra bit means there is less than 1 per cent of oleic acid in the oil.
The vintage date, 2005, obliges you to think about how fresh is the olive oil. As a rule, an unopened bottle of olive oil lasts about 18 months, so this particular bottle is on the cusp of fresh; lay it down in your cellar like a fine wine and in a few years it will stink.
Once you open the bottle, it has about six weeks of freshness, though the oil will not turn rancid for another year. The Italian cook rarely has to think about vintage labels, since they are likely to use a litre of oil in a matter of weeks; in our cooking, we tend to treat a good oil more sparingly, using it only for special occasions, which puts the olive oil at risk.
Timing applies equally to spices and herbs. Our kitchens are littered with bottles of chopped dill-tops and tarragon that have faded in colour and taste.
Throw them out, after two months for dill, a month for tarragon.
I’ve learned most about freshness by watching Japanese chefs prepare sashimi. In the central fish market of Tokyo early each morning, suspicion reigns as these professional cooks sniff and poke the fish, subjecting the dealers to policeman-like questioning about where and when the fish were caught.
But this isn’t where the story of freshness ends: the chefs believe that slicing the fish in certain ways makes it taste fresh. If the flesh is cut at the wrong angle, noxious oils from the skin will be released. Cut the raw fish too thick and all you will experience in chewing is the flesh mass. For the fish chef, fresh is revealed by the work of the human wrist, slicing fish no more than 1cm wide.
Freshness ultimately has as much to do with how you cook as it does with nature. The Spectator