Home grown

Chauvin, Louisiana, 1972. Woman selling home g...
Chauvin, Louisiana, 1972. Woman selling home grown produce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often wonder about the economics of “growing your own”. Usually you have buy your plants, buy compost, fertilizers, and some times special food with added stuff to encourage growth. Then there’s water, which you may get charged for in some locations.

Then the crops may not be that heavy, the fruit small, maybe bug eaten, and weather battered. It makes me wonder if the effort is economically worth while, and that is before I’ve considered the fact that the cost of the labour that you put in is not inconsiderable.

English: Home grown tomatoes, Omagh One enterp...
English: Home grown tomatoes, Omagh One enterprising occupant of a house in Georges Street proves that these plants can be still successfully grown in a small greenhouse, despite the continuous overcast skies [565288] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
However, people reckon that the taste of home grown vegetable is better than those bought in a shop. That may be, but it is difficult to justify the amount of work that home grown produce entails on that basis.

Others worry about the pesticides and growth additives that are added to commercial produce and it is a justified concern, but many, many people never eat home grown produce and it doesn’t seem to seriously affect the majority of them.


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Genetic manipulation has given such people something else to worry about, but really, crops have been genetically modified for millennia, by selection of certain strains. Also, people have subjected seeds to toxic substances such as acids and alkalis, which has the effect of changing the genetic structures of plants.

In particular, the grains that are grown commercially have been manipulated in such a way as to cause a doubling of the genetic material in the plant and such plants are termed tetraploid or octoploid, depending on the number of times the genetic material is multiplied in the seeds.

English: The edge of a wheat crop south of Cla...
English: The edge of a wheat crop south of Clanfield In the green strip beside the wheat were some oat plants. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those opposed to genetic manipulation rarely if ever mention the multiploidity (a word I may just have invented), and raise a nightmare scenario where all so-called “natural” crops are displaced by genetically modified plants. This is a scenario that I find to be extremely unlikely.

If you have ever been around farms you will see the farmer working very hard to support his specialised plants, genetically modified or not. Some genetically modified plants, modified to give higher yields, require insecticides to keep down the pests which may devour them. Other genetically modified plants have genes inserted to deter pests from eating them.

This image shows the coding region in a segmen...
This image shows the coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside of the cultivated fields, in patches of unusable land, grow plants which are escaped crop plants, but they don’t resemble the crop plants very much. Over just a few generations they have in the main reverted back to ancestral types, and that common leggy plant with yellow petals and lumpy seeds pops is such a plant. It may well be an escaped brassica, or wild cabbage, or maybe an escaped oil seed rape plant, the cultivated version of which supplies canola oil for margarines.

Wild growing plants are vigorous growers and over power or inter breed with the escaped crop plants and the more delicate genetically modified versions lose out to the ancestral varieties. Of course, there is a one in many billions chance that a genetically modified plant might supply a gene that causes the loss of other ancestral genes, but it is much more likely that I win a lotto jackpot! The odds are astronomical.

Brassica oleracea (Wild Cabbage) - naturalised...
Brassica oleracea (Wild Cabbage) – naturalised population growing on seacliffs below a mediaeval monastery at Tynemouth, Northumberland, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is sheer hubris to believe that our first forays into genetic modification would produce organisms which are more robust than those produced by millions of years of evolution. It is slightly more likely that genetically modified genes might find there way into ancestral organisms, conferring some advantage on those organisms. The likelihood is, however, as I said above, that modified genes would be lost in the genetic battle between genetically modified and ancestral versions of an organism.

Modern crops, even the ones which have not been genetically modified, need a lot of tending. They need (in many cases) irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and that’s after the preparation of the land and the sowing of the seeds. It is big business and the margins need to be considered at every stage.

Furrow irrigation system using siphon tubes
Furrow irrigation system using siphon tubes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because the produce is grown in standardised conditions, to maximise yield it is pretty much all the same size and quality and this is pretty much become the standard. Consumers have come to expect uniformity in their produce and producers have been driven to provide this.

Grape tomatoes.
Grape tomatoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home grown produce is usually much more variable. Tomatoes may vary in size and shape, and may even be misshapen. Potatoes may vary from large to really small. Peas and beans may have variable numbers in the pods. People who are used to shop bought produce may be disappointed in home grown produce.

I’m told that great satisfaction can be gained from growing your own crops, and indeed, we have raised beans, silver beet, spinach and some other things, and we have enjoyed them as much if not more than shop bought stuff. But I’m no gardener. Gardening plays havoc with my fingernails!

English: Fingernails, about 2mm long Deutsch: ...
English: Fingernails, about 2mm long Deutsch: Fingernägel, etwa 2mm lang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who do decide to produce their own crops, I feel that they should do it for the satisfaction of the act, rather than for any perceived economic reason. The economics are debatable, as I suggest above. As I also say above, the taste of home grown food is supposedly superior to that of shop bought food.

It is certainly true that the flavours of home grown food can be stronger than those of shop bought food.

English: Produce grown at organic community ga...
English: Produce grown at organic community garden in Santa Clara, Cuba. Most of the workers are retired. Profits are shared based on how much time is worked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home grown tomatoes, for example, tend to be fleshier, or more solid, than shop bought ones and, although they may vary in size and colour, they do taste good.

One big advantage of the home grown movement is that a section of the movement has taken on the task of keeping alive the ancestral strains of various vegetables and fruit trees. This means that if commercial produce production were to experience an apocalypse that perhaps ancestral strains could be used to rebuild the produce industries.

English: Well tended fruit trees Wimpole Hall ...
English: Well tended fruit trees Wimpole Hall walled garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also, people in the home grown movement have maintained varieties of vegetables and fruits that are slightly different to common commercial varieties – such as purple carrots or yellow tomatoes. The more variety that we have in our vegetables and fruit the better, even if it means that some people get their fingernails dirty!

Carrot diversity
Carrot diversity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cooking

cooked in this case. I'd like to try the raw v...
cooked in this case. I’d like to try the raw version even though this was good as is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people have a hand in food preparation at some time in the day. Even those who subsist on “instant meals” will at least zap it in the microwave for the necessary amount of time. Some people however cook intricate dishes, for their own amusement or for friends and families.

Most people eat cooked food although there is somewhat of a fad for raw food at the present time. All sorts of diets are also touted as having some sort of benefit for the food conscious, all of which seem bizarre when one considers that many, many people around the world are starving.


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Cooking can be described as applied chemistry, as the aim of cooking is to change the food being cooked by treating it with heat in one way or another. All the methods treatment are given names, like “boiling”, or “baking” or “roasting”. In the distant past no doubt such treatments were hit and miss, but these days, with temperature controlled ovens and ingredients which are pretty much consistent, a reasonable result can be achieved by most people.

Chemistry Is What We Are
Chemistry Is What We Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d guess that the first method of cooking was to hold a piece of meat over a fire until the outside was charred and much of the inside was cooked. However, human ingenuity soon led to spit roasting and other cooking methods. A humorous account of the accidental discovery of roasting a pig was penned by Charles Lamb. In the account the discovery came as a result of an accidental setting fire to a pig sty, and consequently, as the idea of roast pork spread this led to a rash of pig sty fires, until some sage discovered that houses and sties did not need to be burnt down and it was sufficient to hang the pig over a fire.

English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie
English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d suspect that while roasting may have been invented quite early by humans, cooking in water would have come along a lot later as more technology is needed to boil anything. That is, a container would be needed and while coconut shells and mollusc shells can contain a little water, and folded leaves would do at a pinch, when humans invented pottery, the art and science of cooking was advanced immensely.

Although the foods that we eat can pretty much all be eaten raw, most people would find cooked food much more attractive. Cooked food smells nice. The texture of cooked food is different from the texture of raw food. I expect cookery experts are taught the chemical reactions that happen in cooking, but I suspect that cooking breaks down the carbohydrates, the fats, and the proteins in the food to simpler components and that we find it easier to digest these simpler chemicals.


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Maybe. That doesn’t explain why cooked food smells so much nicer than raw food. If food is left to break down by itself it smells awful, rotten, and with a few exceptions we don’t eat food that has started to decay.

Maybe the organisms that rot food produce different simpler components, or maybe the organisms produce by products that humans dislike. Other carnivores don’t seem to mind eating carrion and maybe a rotting carcass smells good to them.

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rules of cooking, the recipes have no doubt been developed by trial an error. It is likely that the knowledge was passed from cook to cook as an aural tradition initially. After all, cooking is likely to have started a long time before reading and writing were invented. Since accurate measurements were unlikely to be obtainable, much of the lore or cooking would have vague and a new cook would have to learn by cooking.

However, once the printing press was invented, after all the bibles and clerical documents had been printed, I would not be surprised to learn that the next book to be printed would have been a cook book. I’ve no evidence for this at all though!

English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Fr...
English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Français : Livre de la cuisson Fanny Farmer 1996 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cooking changes the texture of meat and vegetables, making them softer and easier to eat. Connective tissues in particular are released making a steak for example a lot more edible. Something similar happens to root vegetables, swedes, turnips, carrots and parsnips. These vegetables can be mashed or creamed once they are cooked, something that cannot be done to the rather solid uncooked vegetables.

Cooking is optional for some foods – berries and fruits for example. Apples can be enjoyed while raw when they have a pleasant crunch, or cooked in a pie, when they are sweet and smooth. Babies in particular love the sweet smoothness of cooked apple and for many of them puréed fruits or vegetables are their first “solid” foods.


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Chicken eggs are cooked and eaten in many different ways. The white of an egg is made partly of albumen and when this is cooked it changes from translucent, almost transparent, to an opaque white. Almost everyone will have seen this happen, when an egg is cracked into a frying pan and cooked until the clear “white” of the egg turns to opaque white of the cooked egg.

Many other items when cooked change colour to some extent, but the white of the egg is most apparent. When you pair that with bread which is slightly carbonised on the outside, covered in the coagulated fat from cow’s milk (butter) and you have a common breakfast dish – fried eggs on toast.

English: Two slices of electrically toasted wh...
English: Two slices of electrically toasted white bread on a white plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a whole other type of cooking – baking – that relies at least partly on a chemical reaction between an alkali (baking soda or sodium bicarbonate) and an acid (often “cream of tartar” which is weakly acidic). When the two are mixed in the presence of water, carbon dioxide gas is given off, leading to gas bubbles in the dough. When the dough is cooked the bubbles are trapped inside the stiffening dough, give the baked cake the typical spongy texture.

Some cooking utilises biological reactions. When yeast, a fungus, is placed into a liquid containing sugar, it metabolises the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide, and creates alcohol. In bread making this alcohol is baked off, but it may add to the attractiveness of the smell of newly baked bread. In brewing the alcohol is the main point of the exercise, so it is retained. It may even be enhanced by distillation.

I’ve just touched on a few highlights as regards the mechanisms of cooking (and brewing!), but I’ve come to realise as I have been writing this that there are many, many other points of interest in this subject. The subject itself has a name and that name is “Molecular Gastronomy”. A grand name for a grand subject.


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Wine

Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yar...
Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yarra Australia showing their sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir wine as well as a still pinot noir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most cultures have some substance that they use to relax inhibitions and induce euphoria. Overindulgence leads to intoxication, the word acknowledging that the substance, whatever it is, damages the body in some way. It is toxic. The most widespread substance that is used is alcohol, and the reason it is so common is probably because it is easy to produce and acquire. Just let some fruit go rotten.

Of course, rotten fruit is pretty nasty, and people are ingenious, and it was soon discovered that fruits and grains and some root vegetables could be made to ferment without first going rotten. In fact it is a yeast that is the agent which facilitates the necessary chemical reaction, which takes in sugars in some form and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Alcohol” when referred to in relation to recreational drinking is ethyl alcohol or ethanol, a substance that has now and then suggested as a fuel for cars.

English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcoho...
English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcohol that was made locally in Haikou, Hainan, China, and sold in a dedicated alcohol shop. The signs hanging on the stone bottles show alcohol percentag above, and price in yuan (2009) below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alcoholic drinks can be made from practically anything and can contain varying levels of alcohol, from relatively low alcohol drinks like beers and ales, through to wines, which represent the strongest drinks that can be made by simple fermentation and on to distilled alcoholic drinks which contain large amounts of alcohol.

English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growin...
English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growing by the Roman wall at Calleva Atrebatum. Elderberries can be used in a number of ways, including making elderberry wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wine is these days made from grapes, and alcoholic drinks made from other fruits are usually referred to as “fruit wines“. There is an unfair implication that “fruit wines” are not real wines and are inferior to grape wines. While “fruit wines” are generally not as good as grape wines, the reason is probably more to do with the centuries of development and improvements that have gone into modern grape wines than any inherent superiority of grapes as a prime ingredient of wines.

Wines are typically made from the grapes of Vitis vinifera though occasionally other grapes are used, and hybrids of V. vinifera with other species are not uncommon. Wines are classified as either white or red, the colour coming from the colour of the skin of the grapes that were used in the production of the wine. Rosé wines are usually pinkish or pale red and are usually made from red wine grapes. The paler colour results from the removal of the skins at an early stage of production.

Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valle...
Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valley and Provence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are all sorts of varieties of wine, named after the varieties of grape vines that produce the grapes. I’ve a couple of books on wine which detail the genealogy of grape vines and it is a complicated messy and incestuous family tree. There are stories of skullduggery, stealing, and smuggling. There are stories of cataclysmic crop failures and noble experiments and migrations between countries.

Climate change comes into the picture too. Grapes are grown in areas of southern England where grapes have not been grown since Roman times, when younger and more robust varieties were grown. But the ability to grow grapes commercially in England can’t all be put down to global warming since techniques for protecting vines from frost (the main cause of crop failure in grape vines) have been vastly improved.

Madeleine Angevine growing in England
Madeleine Angevine growing in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Smoke producing machines are used to protect vines from frost and helicopters have been used to good effect too. I’m not sure how these techniques work, but I believe they do. One of the most bizarre protection methods is to spray the vines with water which instantly freezes and cocoons  the buds in an envelope of ice apparently protecting them from freezing.

I find this stuff interesting, but the reason people buy wine is because of the alcohol in it, and the reason that they prefer some wines over others is the taste. I prefer red wines, because white wines seem astringent and too sweet. Which is odd because red wines can also be astringent and sweet! Well, maybe I am exaggerating somewhat, but the beauty of the wine is definitely on the tongue of the taster.

When tasters taste wine, they have a problem. Sweetness or dryness is pretty much describable, as is the tannin level, which gives all wines, red or white, its astringency, but when the subtleties of the flavour have to be described, especially to someone who has not yet tasted the wine, then there are issues.

Vineyard owned by California wine producer Fer...
Vineyard owned by California wine producer Ferrari-Carano in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma county. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wines may be described as “fruity” or “full-bodied”, which gives some impression of the experience of tasting the wine. The taster may have to descend to using analogies for further details. To quote from a bottle label : “This wine is fruit driven with flavours of red berry fruit and black cherries….”.

However, if you actually taste the wine, you won’t taste berries or cherries. What you will taste is firstly the major type, red or white. Secondly you are likely to be able to distinguish the variety, for example Pinot Noir, or at least the style for a blended wine. Then you will get the overall ‘shape’ of the wine (robust maybe, or delicate). You will note different aspects of the wine at different stages of drinking, at first hit, in the mouth and the aftertaste. I find that some wines have distinctive phases of this sort and others don’t.

You certainly don’t want to be analysing every sip of every wine when you drink it, but I do try to taste it like above at least on one mouthful, but I don’t always remember to do so. It does help you when you choose a wine in the store though.

Typical shape and design of a white wine tasti...
Typical shape and design of a white wine tasting glass. New Zealand wine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To get back to the red berries and cherries for a moment, you may taste a wine and not be able to detect them in your tasting. That’s because, in my opinion, those tastes are not there as such. So what do the tasting notes mean by these comments? They mean that the taster is reminded by some flavours of the wine of some aspects of the taste of berries. A faint echo of the richly complex flavours of red berry fruit echoes in the mind of the taster, and that is all that he has to work with when trying to describe some of the flavours in the wine.

In terms of familial relationships the flavour being described by the taster is not as close as brother or sister to the flavour mentioned by the taster. It’s more a second cousin twice removed relationship, and the taster is not saying that it is the second cousin twice removed, but that it reminds him or her of the second cousin twice removed. So you may think that there is hint of gooseberry in flavour of the wine and for you there are.

I think that the ability to even register some flavours varies from person to person and not just in wine. One person may taste something complex and say “mint”, while another may say “cloves”.

Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sono...
Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sonoma, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where does it leave those of us who read wine labels and try to match the description with the label? Well, unless you drink a lot of wine and have an ability to distinguish the flavours that is practised, and have a similar sort of palate to the usually anonymous taster, then the bottle labels or tasting notes don’t mean a great deal. If it says “robust” or “full-bodied” for example, most people would be able to agree, but if it says “hints of gooseberry” you may well not agree that those flavours are there. It might remind you more of apples.

Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle.
Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)