In the world of food, no word is used and abused more than the adjective ‘fresh.’ Food purveyors want us to believe everything is fresh, including food “fresh” from the can or bottle. The only thing not extolled as fresh is wine. Old wine is better which always puzzles me because I am one of those barbarians who like grape wine “fresh” from the fermentation barrel.
When Carol recently sent me to the garden for a few sprigs of dill, I realized once more that there are varying degrees of freshness and they need to be described with the artful descriptions and distinctions that wine connoisseurs use. The very second I pinched off a sprig of dill, the heavenly aroma wafted up through my olfactory nerves with a piercing liveliness that was far more electrifyingly dilly-ish than even the aroma of a dill pickle (which smells quite lively too). Just passing my hand over the dill plant sent this spicy liveliness into the air around me. I immediately thought of the subtle nuances of the wine-tasting world. Fresh dill was not “unusually weighty and tannic” as one might describe a good Burgundy, but unusually light and acidic. In the language of wine buyer and author Kermit Lynch, in his wonderful book, Adventures On the Wine Route, dill’s aroma was “almost visible.” I put a sprig on my tongue and found it penetratingly exquisite with a “playful bite” to use Lynch’s language again. The dill taste was still there on the potatoes Carol prepared, but dill put aside for future flavoring did not maintain that ascending virginal tang of the dill in the garden, to use some of my own winey language which gets better the more I drink.
We recognize degrees of freshness more in some foods than others. No potato, however well-stored, can equal new potatoes just big enough to eat and fresh from the soil. Even with today’s extra-sweet sweet corn varieties, ears roasted right after being removed from the stalk have a delicate flavor that begins to wane with an hour or so. Peas start losing that ultra perfection of flavor even sooner. With both corn and peas, freshness has another connotation. There is a peak time for flavor, at least for me, depending on how far along in development the vegetable is when picked. If allowed to mature too much, goodbye subtle nuances. Peas have to be picked when they have not yet filled the pod tightly, corn when the kernels are still just a tad on the green “pimply” side as we say. Mechanical harvest can’t do the job when the crop is at its most flavorful so no matter how hard commerce tries, I don’t think it can ever bring the tastiest food to market. The tastiest is the reward of the home gardener.
Freshness also affects the taste of meat, sometimes dramatically. Pork sausage fried on butchering day has a heavenly taste that few people experience these days. Even frozen, sausage will start losing that first flavor in a couple of months until it finally tastes like what we refer to as “old boar,” a term not even wine tasters have thought of yet. That’s why it became customary to season stored sausage with sage— to mask that old boar taste. I’d rather taste old boar.
Even fresh food marketers have to pick their fruits and vegetables a little ahead of time. I wonder if we could come up with a way to label freshness. I’d call it the “ago code.” First class fresh corn or peas would have a label that said “picked less than a day ago.” Second class fresh would be stamped “less than two days ago.” A third would identify stuff picked “less than three days ago.” The rest would carry a “stored” symbol.
What is freshness anyway? Is it just a figment of imagination? Is it a substance in itself? Could it be geno-typed, isolated and injected into food to make it taste better. I sure hope not.