“Modern distribution and storage methods can significantly increase the time period before there is loss of quality for a product, and it has become increasingly difficult to decide when the term ‘fresh’ is being used legitimately.”
The quote above is from an official document published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), setting out the criteria for use of the word “fresh” in food labelling.
It’s not surprising that even the body responsible for food safety and food hygiene in the UK has problems defining the word “fresh”. Much of the apparently fresh produce in the “fresh” fruit and vegetable section of our supermarkets are much older than we might imagine.
The growth of the big supermarket chains, with the concomitant decline of local food retailers, has meant that food often has to travel much further, and thus take longer to reach to the supermarket shelves . This has led to a bewildering range of techniques to keep food looking fresher for longer.
Apples, for example, are routinely stored in a controlled atmosphere which has high levels of carbon dioxide and low levels of oxygen (around 1%, compared to the 21% in the atmosphere). This is to prevent the apples emitting ethylene, a chemical released when fruit ripens. In the USA, apples are often treated with a fungicidal wax and hot air-dried to improve their sheen and preserve their “fresh” appearance. So effective are these methods of preservation that some of the apples on display in your local supermarket may be as much as a year old.
Potatoes, too, are often considerably older than we might assume. Over half the potatoes grown in the UK go into storage, so that they can continue to be sold long beyond the growing season. After harvesting, these potatoes are first exposed to high temperatures and high humidity to “cure them”. They are then stored at very low temperatures and often treated with chloropropham, a chemical which inhibits sprouting. So-called “new” potatoes are likely to be as much as six months old when you are buying them out of season.
Other “fresh” products which may not be all they seem include lettuce and bags of mixed salad leaves. Bagged in plastic and cooled to 0°C before transportation, sometimes using modified atmosphere packaging, lettuces and bagged salads can be as much as 4 weeks old when you pick them from the supermarket shelf.
Carrots that are not for immediate sale are washed in chlorinated water and then chilled at around 0°C, allowing them to be stored for up to 9 months.
Bananas are picked when green and refrigerated at very low temperatures for up to a month. After transportation they are sprayed with ethylene at the last minute to encourage ripening.
Research has shown that these methods of prolonging “freshness” are often at the price of both taste and nutritional value.
The problems the FSA has in defining “freshness” reveal how abused that word has become when it comes to our food.
When I use the word “fresh” in relation to food I mean freshly picked, preferably that day, preferably by my own hand and preferably from my own garden.
What is certainly true is that eating seasonally is a first step to eating genuinely fresh food, and that the shorter the time span from picking to eating the less “need” there is for chemical intervention to be inflicted upon the food we eat.
On to the recipe.
This simple soup relies on the subtle aniseed undertones of French tarragon to counterbalance the sweetness of the peas. The result is a delicious bowl of wonderful flavour and natural goodness.
pea and tarragon soup
500 g fresh peas (use frozen if not available)
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
10 g (roughly two good tablespoons) fresh French tarragon leaves
½ tsp sea salt
1.2 litres vegetable stock
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Pour the olive oil into a large pan and place over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, for five minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent.
2. Add the garlic and sea salt and cook for a further two minutes before adding the peas, tarragon and the stock. Bring to a simmer then reduce the heat to keep it at a gentle simmer. Cook for ten minutes, stirring every so often. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for at least ten minutes.
3. Blend in a food processor until smooth and beautifully green. Re-heat before serving.