James Wong: An Exclusive Interview on Growing Food for Flavour

James Wong: An Exclusive Interview on Growing Food for Flavour

Showing no signs of slowing down, James is now releasing his third book in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society, ‘RHS Grow for Flavour: Tips & Tricks for Maximum Flavour and Minimum Labour’. In his new book James shares countless tips and techniques to help us home gardeners get the best taste from our produce. Whether it’s recommending foods to try out that we may never have heard of before, tips to get the most flavour from foods or even recipes to make the most of our home-grown produce, James has provided plenty of advice to inspire us to get our gardening gloves on.

With his new book due out on March 5th, we caught James to pick his brain on the best ways to produce tasty food from our gardens and to hear more about what we’ll find in his book.

 

Hi James. So your new book is out next month, what made you decide to focus on improving flavour, and how much does the growing process influence taste?

Truly ‘unbuyable’ flavour is the number one reason we are constantly told why growing your own beats supermarkets hands down every time. But guess what? It’s not always true!

SOME crops taste better when you grow them yourself. Some taste pretty much the same. And some taste measurably worse. On top of that most conventional gardening advice (essentially the same techniques growers for supermarkets use, just on a smaller scale) are actually designed to water down crop flavour in favour of larger yields.

I felt it was high time this situation was changed, so I spent 3 years researching the latest scientific evidence behind how to measurably improve crop flavour. What I found was to shock me. With simple tips and tricks anyone can get strawberries with x7 the aroma, sweetcorn with x10 the sugar & chilies with x50 the spice.

What sort of recipes can we expect to find in your new book? Which is your favourite?

I am not a chef, just a greedy botanist. But my scientific background means I can use recipes to further manipulate the chemicals behind crop flavour and nutrition. Popping a tomato leaf into a simmering sauce, for example, helps replace many of the grassy and herbal notes in raw tomatoes that are lost in the cooking process, leading to a much more fresh-tasting result.

Freezing whole sweetcorn cobs is a tradition in Japan to create healthy ice lollies for kids. This deep freeze treatment halts a chemical reaction that can cause the sugar content of corn to markedly decline within just hours of picking, making sweeter results with no added sugar. Simmering cherry pips along with the fruit in recipes for jellies, syrups and cordials adds a deep, dark almond-like flavour AND eliminates hours of fiddly pitting. It’s a no brainer!

My favourite recipe however has to be a blueberry pie, where each slice could potentially contain the same level of antioxidants as 9 cups of fresh supermarket blueberries. Talk about having your pie and eating it!

We know plenty of children who won’t touch a vegetable if it’s – and we quote – “funny looking”. Does appearance have anything to do with taste or can ugly carrots taste just as good as pretty ones?

Well yes and no. It is trendy for foodie activists to say that whatever a vegetables size and shape, they all taste the same. But that is not necessarily true.

Mishapen or stunted fruit and veg generally have a higher ratio of peel and pith to flesh. This can mean they have a tough, fibrous texture and even less sugar according to some trials. However as many nutrients are concentrated in the skins, on the flip side this may just come with a nutritional boost. For example mini cherry tomatoes can contain up to x20 the antioxidant, lycopene, as the enormous beefsteaks due to their higher ratio of skin to flesh.

Do you have any tips for making sure your fruit is sweet rather than sharp?

Absolutely! Sugar is produced by plants by capturing energy from the sun, with several trials showing a direct relationship between fruit sweetness and the level of light they are exposed to. So always picks the sunniest possible site to plant your fruit patch. A light pruning in the summer to prevent the leaves from shading the developing fruit can further up both sugar and antioxidant content by as much as 100%.

Finally, thinning out developing bunches of fruit to remove up to 50% of them will result in a much larger, sweeter fruit with less skin and seeds. OK, it can be heartbreaking to trim out a bumper crop of baby fruit in the spring, but I promise you your tastebuds will thank me come the summer.

For the best taste, should we be eating food as soon as it’s been freshly picked?

In some crops, the freshest produce will always taste far superior. Old fashioned varieties of sweetcorn, for example, can lose as much as 60% of their sugar within just 12 hours of picking. Likewise salads start to loose their crispness and even some of their nutritional value the moment they are picked.

However this is NOT a universal rule. In a whole range of crops from pumpkins and tomatoes, to strawberries and sweet potatoes, their flavour chemicals and nutrients actually increase upon storage. Butternut squash for example can be 400% sweeter after three months of storage in a cool, dry place & contain more vitamin A and flavour chemicals. Strawberries aroma can soar up to 700% after just 4 days of sitting on the counter according to one Canadian trial. This process also makes them redder and richer in antioxidants. The key with all of these crops is not to store them in the fridge, as the chemical reactions that induce these changes will not take place below 10C. As a general guide, ideal storage conditions would be a cool room of between 15-20C.

How do you feel about freezing produce once you’ve picked it?

Freezing is an excellent way to preserve the maximum amount of flavour and nutrition in a whole range of foods. If freezing veg though, make sure to blanch them in boiling water for a minute or two before popping them in the freezer. This flash of heat helps denature enzymes which can cause a soggy, wilted texture in frozen veg after long term storage.

What foods do you enjoy growing the most and why?

Now that is a big list! Right at the top though has to come tomatoes, cherries and berries as their flavour is truly unrecognisable to supermarket staples.

I am in love with ‘Green Envy’ tomatoes, whose emerald, grape-sized fruit are as sweet as gum drops with an almighty umami kick. If you want something more traditional, go for the bright pink ‘Rosella’ tomatoes, which combine a sky high sugar content, laced with raspberry-like hints. Speaking of raspberries, I think it should be a legal requirement for all new allotmenteers to plant either purple raspberries (variety name ‘Glen Coe’) or black raspberries (variety name ‘Jewel’). These are neither technically a raspberry, nor a blackberry, but descend from a totally different species from the West Coast of North America. Super easy-to-grow, with deep purple fruit that taste of those pick-and-mix berry sweets you get in the cinema, what’s not to like?

Finally, I implore you to grow the cherry variety ‘May Duke’, which is a cross between sweet and tart varieties and unavailable in the shops. Despite it’s ‘tart’ ancestry it actually has a much higher sugar content than the supermarket varieties (which have sadly been primarily bred for shelf life, not flavour) plus a refreshing acidity that makes your mouth water. I look forward to these all year, sat in the sun with a glass of vermouth. Essential in any newbies starter-kit.

You’ve got a bit of reputation for getting us to grow foods we’d never consider ordinarily. What’s the most obscure food you’ve ever tried to grow?

I think that must have to be oyster mushrooms, which I grow on my compost heap. These natural fungi actually help breakdown the heap faster, so you get lovely crumbly compost in much less time, plus a free harvest of gourmet mushrooms.

All you need to do is buy a packet of spawn online and gently fork it in to the top of your heap in the spring, they will do the rest! Picking a brightly coloured form, as such as coral pink or canary yellow ensures no cases of mistaken mushroom identity.

What would be the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone trying gardening at home?

Don’t freak out about Latin names, obscure rules and the right times of year to do everything. Just give it a go! Remember, it is in a plant’s own interest to survive and they have been doing it for billions of years without any help from us.

Nine times out of ten if you dig a hole in the ground, pop a plant in and keep it well watered for the first few months you won’t have to do anything else. The rest are just tips and tricks to give you better results, like bigger fruit, more flowers, stronger growth. But trust me if you do absolutely nothing to an apple tree for decades, you will still get apples every year.

And lastly, how do you deal with the unpredictable British weather?

Accept there is nothing I can do to change it and carry on (with frequent bouts of dashing indoors for cups of tea when thunderstorms strike).