In this series, Andy Hamilton, our longtime writer and collaborator, does some home experiments in his own inimitable fashion. Many of the foragers and wild food practitioners that we have met through making The Botanist are self-taught, and their knowledge is sounded out by testing theories and recipes for themselves. Here we benefit from Andy’s account of exploring the idea that “Wild food has a better flavour than cultivated food”.
AH: I am sitting in front of my screen with two mugs of nettle tea sitting by my side. It’s not because I am a hydration fanatic and nor am I self medicating with herbs no its to explore the notion that wild food has a better flavour than cultivated. Of course the experiment and even the statement are floored in many ways, “better” is subjective and there is no academic rigour to an experiment that involves one person with bias drinking tea. Lets brush these concerns aside and break apart the statement.
What is wild food and what is cultivated food?
Wild food is really anything you can eat that has not been domesticated or cultivated. We think of cultivated food as the animals and plants that we have aided, seeds we plant and cultivated, animals we breed and feed and fruit trees who’s branches are grafted on. The level of cultivation can vary dramatically from small scale organic farms grown using permaculture methods to large industrial farms containing plants and animals that don’t experience natural daylight or soil.
Consider that just 1.1% of the worlds vegetables are organically grown (see this editorial piece from The Guardian >). For the sake of argument I will refer to cultivated food as non organically grown or reared.
What do we mean by “better flavour”?
Our tongues are home to around 10,000 tastebuds, and it is now an established assumption that taste can be bunched into five categories: sweet, sour, salt, umami (or savoury) and bitter. It is also important to mention that we taste things like metallic, bubbles, silkiness and heat or spiciness, but these are really sensations and not flavours.
In the most simplistic of terms, what we taste signals to our brain that we are eating either food or toxins. Bitter is by far the most complex, especially when you compare it to sour or umami, for which there are only a handful of taste variants—the bitter taste is thought to trigger around 550 taste receptors (and counting). In order to recognize these foods our receptors are picking up on chemical compounds such as sulfamides, alkaloids, glucose, fructose, ionized salts, acids and glutamate.
But what we taste is not the only thing that enhances the flavour of our food, our mood, our location and the appearance of the food itself, even the music in the background can all change our perception of food. This is why for my nettle tea experiment I served the tea in identical cups and drank them both whilst working on this article, more on that later.
So what does this all mean?
Let’s face it there are few people who enjoy shopping at the supermarket, throw in a screaming toddler to the mix and it can seem like a masochistic endurance race. On the reverse a foraging expedition is often serene and magical. Studies are showing that time spent in the woods can lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety and a host of other experiences. See my earlier article on “Forest Bathing” here >.
I find when I am eating a plate of mushrooms I have foraged or a some pickled pine buds that I think back to the time when I picked them and this enhances the experience. I never think back to when I threw a tin of beans into a trolley.
It is also true that novel food experiences will enhance the flavour of our food. In a well-known 1992 study first published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin four experiments, including eating popcorn with chopsticks or drinking water from a cocktail glass, concluded that people enjoyed these experience much more than just eating or drinking as they normally would.
Wild food is always novel, even when I return to a spot that I know well the light will be different, there will be subtle difference in the surrounding flora, the plant or mushroom will be growing in a slightly different area and the yield of each crop will fluctuate. With new foods you can become giddy with delight on foraging walks I have seen adults almost revert back to being excitable children when they find new foods.
Yet none of this even touches the sides of what is contained within wild foods. Why the conventionally grown rocket can taste bland and wild rocket can have a taste that you’ll remember for the rest of the day. It is partly because food has been loosing it’s nutrtional value over the years. Potatoes have 47% less copper, 45% less iron and 35% less calcium which means you have to eat almost double the amount of potatoes to get the same amount of nutrition. The more we cultivate for bigger yields the greater the decline in nutritional value. Uncultivated wild food will always be more nutritious. The Guardian’s Andrew Purvis, with substantiation from several universities and the Food Standards Agency, was reporting on this as early as 2005. See It’s supposed to be Lean Cuisine …>
According to a study published in PLOS one serving chickweed, dandelion, dock, mallow and nasturtiums all contain more calcium, vitamin A, Iron, potassium, dietary fibre than conventionally grown kale. In an article in the Journal ‘Science’ it was found that 20 of the most important flavour compounds in a tomato come from essential amino acids and omega 3 fats. This suggest that the compounds that make the tomato taste like a tomato are also the most nutritious. Could the same be true of wild food?
Back to the nettle tea experiment…
Thankfully, the wild nettle was much tastier than the cultivated in fact there was no contest. The cultivated tasted bland and I could only taste the hot water very little flavour came through. Whilst the wild nettle tasted fresh and earthy and even some hints of floral. Whilst working grabbing the nearest drink is somewhat mechanical and so I swapped between the two without really knowing which I was picking up. Every time I got the same result.
If you wanted to recreate the experiment here are the parameters I used. I used two nettle tops to one cup containing 250ml (1 cup us) of boiling water and one (1.5g/0.05oz) tea bag bought from a local supermarket. The nettle was plucked on an overcast day at 1pm GMT. The cups were both white and the water was at 90°c/194°f. Both were steeped for 5 minutes and 0 seconds and I drank them from my desk with no music playing.