Jump in the time machine and taste food as it should be

Garry Linnell
If you could swallow a beautiful sunrise on a warm summer morning, this is what it would taste like.
If you could swallow a beautiful sunrise on a warm summer morning, this is what it would taste like.  Photo: Colleen Petch

COMMENT

There's a time machine hidden at the rear of my mother-in-law's house. True story. We've kept it secret for a long time because we all love using it and don't want anyone else muscling in on our good fortune. But now it's time to let the rest of the world know how easy it is to journey back to another era.

Come step into my mother-in-law's backyard. Close your eyes. Now let your senses do the work.

Smell that? That's a ripe tomato. From 50 years ago. The way it used to be. The way it should be. Breathe it in – full of sweetness and an earthy pungency you can't find any more. Look here – it doesn't even bounce when you drop it on the ground like those you buy in the supermarkets these days.

Now cut it open and allow that burst of flavour to roll down your tongue. How good is that? Better than a first kiss. If you could swallow a beautiful sunrise on a warm summer morning, this is what it would taste like. Don't worry if it dribbles down your chin. Wipe it off with your fingers and lick it up.

What about this – a cucumber that tastes just like they used to, not that sopping excuse for a salad ingredient they now serve up to us that turns to wet cardboard in your mouth. In my mother-in-law's backyard even zucchini – that world champion of blandness – carries hints of sweetness. And don't even get me started on her eggplant parmigiana. Hunched old men with desiccated tear ducts weep when they walk past and smell it baking in her oven.

Sadly, we can't stay here forever. My mother-in-law, who migrated from Italy in the late 1960s from a poor village rich in home-grown, home-cooked food, doesn't have enough 1970s-style furniture to seat us all. Or enough home-made limoncello to go round. But she'll always welcome you back because this backyard sanctuary of hers – a constant canvas of bright greens and reds and yellows – is one of the few places left where food grows and tastes like it should.

It's why a trip along the aisles of my supermarket these days is nothing more than a sad excursion down alleyways of broken promises and fraudulent claims. Food has followed our politicians – perfectly clothed, inoffensive and bland. Carrots plucked from the earth months earlier, tasting like the sterile cool rooms they've been stored in. Apples and oranges and grapes and lemons with less flavour than the plastic versions my mum used as a display centrepiece on the kitchen table.

A decade ago an American study found that an array of more than 40 garden vegetable crops, along with many fruits, contained 20 per cent less vitamin A and 15 per cent less vitamin C than the same crops grown half a century ago. Earlier this year, Spanish scientists announced they had identified 13 volatile compounds that give tomatoes their distinct taste, all lost in recent decades as part of the quest to grow the fruit bigger, faster and better looking.

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For carnivores, meat has trodden the same sorry path. Chickens that are twice the size and half the price and have half the taste they did two generations back. Cattle and pigs raised on artificially enhanced food, slaughtered young and way too often.

But as you sit down to a dinner tonight of limp salad leaves from a plastic bag, don't go blaming various governments and greedy corporate multinationals for the slop on your plate. Yes, we could do with tighter food regulation. And our store shelves sure could do with fewer preservatives and hysterical claims about the health benefits of the laboratory-inspired stuff we consume. Powerful interests control our food supply but we've encouraged and allowed their intrusion into our homes and onto our plates, using our fast lives and appreciation of takeaway and throwaway to excuse their endless quest for profits.

Don't complain. Just fight back. You don't have to don a kaftan or live in a yurt to make a small difference to your life and the lives of those around you. Last week I caught a bream and trevally off a local beach. Within 15 minutes they were cleaned, scaled and in the pan. The flesh was incredible. Sweet and buttery, they tasted like fish should, without the aftertaste of a plastic bag from a supermarket freezer.

I've just finished building a large raised garden bed that, with a little advice from my mother-in-law and loads of tenderness, experimentation and patience, will hand back to me a fragment of the flavours of the past.

A time machine for those who have lost their taste for the present.

Garry Linnell is co-presenter of The Breakfast Show on Talking Lifestyle.