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Creating Flavor in the Field

Some farmers are turning to science to improve the flavor of crops. Their efforts, says chef Dan Barber, mean more delicious food for us.

This past January, famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who has won the adulation of food critics and chefs around the world by using science and technology to create unexpected textures and flavors, said something extraordinary to the 1,200 or so attendees of his talk at the Madrid Fusión culinary conference. "Is it possible," he asked a hushed crowd as he held a tomato up to the light, "that in our quest to make the most perfect gelée, we’ve overlooked the most perfect gelée?" He sliced open the tomato and removed a section of seeds encased in their natural gelatin. "Perhaps we’ve come at this from the wrong end," he said. "Maybe we should have started with nature."

Maybe indeed. The most forward-thinking farmers these days are already applying the same experimentation to the field that chefs like Adrià are applying to the plate. Molecular gastronomy meets molecular agronomy? Yes, but with a twist. These farmers aren’t creating genetically modified Franken-fruit. They’re respecting the tenets of sustainable agriculture while using the latest technology to create better-tasting food.

Most traditional farmers look to the past for guidance, returning to practices that were common before World War II. Slow Food purists wouldn’t have it any other way. But increasingly, some of the tastiest ingredients are born of tech-minded innovators.

Rick Bishop—who, with his wife, Nicole, runs Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in the Catskill Mountains—grows delicious vegetables, and he owes his success in part to the refractometer. A refractometer is a small, handheld device that measures Brix, the sugar content of a fruit or vegetable; it’s commonly used to check the sweetness of grapes, helping winemakers predict ideal harvest times, but Bishop was one of the first vegetable growers to adopt it.

"Hot dog!" Bishop yelled on a cell phone, jumping up and down like a lottery winner, as I passed him at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket. His assistant had just taken a 12 Brix reading of their carrots. Though his carrots might be 12 percent sugar, no one in his long line of customers, including some of the city’s finest chefs, was aware of his vegetables’ Brix numbers.

So why are farmers using refractometers? "My goal is consistency," Bishop says. "Look, I know my carrots are sweet, but they vary, too. So if next year I’m planning to pull them from the ground, and I get a Brix of only 9—still freakin’ great, by the way—I might wait a few days to harvest, or I might hold back on the irrigation for a few days to concentrate the sugar, or I might even drop a load of soft rock phosphate to boost mineral levels. The readings give me reliable information to act on."

Farming based on scientific numbers sounds cold-hearted—after all, we’d rather picture Bishop carrying a hoe than a spreadsheet of Brix readings—but it can lead to a warm-hearted conclusion. If chefs and buyers at the market can quantify their taste preferences precisely, such as asking for carrots with a minimum Brix level, farmers can more easily produce the result—and food will taste better.

When it comes to raising animals, the technological equivalent of the refractometer is the ultrasound machine. Doctors have long used high-frequency sound waves to create a picture of the inside of the human body. But now, some ranchers have discovered that ultrasound can be an invaluable predictor of fat marbling in meat. Put another way, ultrasounding can predict how much your mouth will water with each bite of your steak.

Credit for animal ultrasounding goes to Ridge Shinn, a farmer at Out of the Woods Farm in central Massachusetts, who is a part-time livestock consultant and a full-time proselytizer of raising cattle on an all-grass diet. "Conventional ranchers rarely understand the quality of what they’re producing. The processing centers identify the best meat and grade it ’prime,’ but they do that after the slaughter," he says, turning up his hands in disbelief. "Works for the processor all right—they get the increased profits from the sale of a well-marbled animal, and the customers are happy because they know what they’re getting."

There’s no grading system for sustainable, 100 percent grass-fed meat: Most farmers raise just a few head of cattle a year, making a grading system impossible. What’s more, the flavor of grass-fed sirloin can vary considerably, even when the steaks come from the same producer. They might be succulent in one delivery; dry and flavorless the next.

"That’s where technology comes in," Shinn says. "We ultrasound the live animal between the 12th and 13th rib—same place as the grader evaluating the hanging carcass." If the fat’s there, the scan shows it clearly. And if the fat’s not there, the farmer can change the animal’s diet or ultimately decide to switch to a different breed entirely, one that benefits more from the particular mix of grasses available to it. "Good genetics can give you better flavor," Shinn says, "but you have to identify that before the steer is hamburger."

Most people, including old-fashioned agrarians and sustainable-agriculture purists, can accept refractometers and ultrasound machines. But when scientists start experimenting with genetic manipulation, there’s a collective feeling of unease, if not creepiness. So on the face of it, a scientist like Autar Mattoo may appear to be the Antichrist of sustainable agriculture. A plant physiologist, Mattoo works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (strike one against him), based in a lab just outside Washington, DC (strike two), and he selects or modifies vegetable and fruit genes expressed during the ripening process (enough to be banned from the ballpark). But Mattoo has spent the past three years working at the USDA’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory, marrying the science of genetic engineering with the tenets of sustainable agriculture. His central theme is that we’ve lost our way with farming, and his research, he says, is one way "to regain flavor and nutritional content in the hopes of helping the small farmer."

Mattoo is originally from Kashmir, India. He is short and quietly intense, and when he speaks, his words are measured. "My colleagues and I developed a new line of tomato recently that featured a 200 to 300 percent increase in lycopene—a natural antioxidant," he says, and then smiles brilliantly, adding, "And the process also improved juice quality, with higher fructose-sugar and acid-sugar ratios."

I ask if that means the tomato is sweeter. "It has a special taste—tingly, sweet and juicy," he says carefully, and then adds, with another smile, "It means they taste very good." Remember that bite of incredibly ripe and delicious tomato in the middle of August that tasted like it was perfumed with apricots? Mattoo says he might someday be able to identify the gene that expresses apricot flavor and activate it for a better-tasting tomato: "I will be able to switch it on, just like that."

Mattoo identifies specific genes—those responsible for nutrition or flavor—and then manipulates them. The difference between his creations and other genetically modified crops is that he is turning on or off genes that are naturally present in the plant. He’s not taking genes from, say, a pig’s heart and inserting them into a tomato plant. And his work benefits the small farmer. Companies creating genetically modified plants have engineered "terminator" seeds, which force the farmer to buy new seed every year; Mattoo’s seeds can be passed along through generations of farmers.

Which brings us back to farmers, who have saved seeds and crossbred plants for hundreds of years in search of better nutrition and flavor. Chefs have long had relationships with these farmers—the ones they name on their menus, showing their support of local, sustainable agriculture. It won’t be long before these names are joined by a new breed of agri-innovators, the Ferran Adriàs of the farm. What could be more exciting—or delicious—than that?

Dan Barber, an F&W Best New Chef 2002, is chef and co-owner of NYC’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY.

Published July 2007
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