From the farm to the freezer, fresh­ness is a paragon pick­led in his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Richard Sen­nett

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

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