Over the fence
Over the fence Should taste and goodness be just as important as looks when growing vegetables for exhibitions?
Looks vs. flavour in exhibition veg
Vegetables must be edible – that is their purpose. When vegetables are grown ‘to show’, they are grown to be the best of their type. The judging rules give points for uniformity, condition, colour and size, and only the best are chosen for the show bench. The ‘Show Perfection’ pea got its name because it looks good when displayed. This does not mean it cannot be eaten as well; indeed, it has a lovely sweet taste. The large varieties of vegetables are large to start with and not a small variety fed to be large – that would be just silly and wrong. They are grown to be perfect, but the flavour is the same as if they were grown in a kitchen garden. Our ‘Mammoth’ onion, like most larger varieties, has a mild Spanish flavour, while ‘Mammoth Red’ has a different origin and has a stronger flavour. Potatoes that are grown for the show bench have the same flavour as those grown for the kitchen, but are given more attention when washed and displayed. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth eating; leek and potato soup made with exhibitionstyle vegetables is just as delicious. Overgrown vegetables, which are clearly inedible and look like an overweight cat, are not true to type and not what large exhibition vegetables are about. Vegetables grown for show, when grown correctly, have just as good a flavour as the more commercial varieties. Chef Philip Harben had conversations with my father and grandfather in the mid-1900s about this very subject. And now, in an age where baby veg and micro greens are fashionable, the debate rages on. As the old Chinese saying goes: “Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon”. That said, I feel on fairly safe ground despising metre-long French beans for lacking sweetness and succulence, for who’s to say they won’t become a decade’s supply of chutney lurking in the cupboard. Let me be clear: I’m perfectly enchanted by the sight of a young child sat atop an airbag of a squash, and only a curmudgeon wouldn’t take pleasure in holding a carrot you could joust with. These are the Top Trumps of the vegetable world, and a tribute to the skills of those who grow them, but I can think of no vegetable where its flavour improves for growing it larger or to be more visually pleasing. Often, the opposite is true. Show vegetables are grown to impress in size, uniformity and condition; their success is judged on this. They say that size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts, but when it comes to show vegetables, there’s usually little else that can be done with them. Take the marrow (please, take it). Visually impressive as it may be, a marrow is simply a bottle of courgetteflavoured squash that has had too much water – flavourlessness abounds. So, we hollow out a giant marrow canoe, fill it with heavily spiced ingredients to counteract its blandness, then eat only the contents. For me, growing is about enjoying food at it’s very best. My judging criteria are flavour, texture, vitality and beauty. Of course, I celebrate the skills of the grower and marvel at the perfection when I see a display, but do I want any of them for my tea? I do not.
Leek and potato soup made with exhibition veg is delicious When it comes to show vegetables, little else can be done with them