My summers as a child were spent on my grandmother’s farm on the outskirts of Madrid where delicious fruit trees and bushes abounded, and where cherries, peaches, apricots and more grew like vines in a rainforest. Every time I look at our photo albums from that time, I can’t help but laugh at little me stuffing my face with peaches in every single shot. I couldn’t get enough.
But that doesn’t happen when I fly across the pond and return to America. Why is that? Am I crazy? I have heard similar, if not identical comments from friends and passersby alike, that the produce available in supermarkets lacks true flavors as compared to the fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe. Does Europe have some magical spell that makes everything more enjoyable? Is it because we are usually there on vacation and we tend to idealize those times? Or do fruits and vegetables really taste different? The answer is more complicated than you think.
It turns out there’s no scientific evidence to explain the difference. The sun, soil or agriculture methods in Europe do not vary vastly from here. What is different is culture and preferences. For example, Italians take their food very seriously. Even a simple pasta with tomatoes and olive oil must be made with fresh ingredients. Italians would never stand for the watery garbage that somehow manages to pass for a tomato in American supermarkets. Europeans have higher standards for produce and that is reflected in the demand for certain seeds and strains over others.
Another important reason for the difference, in my opinion, is that American farmers and growers prefer yield, disease resistance, size and durability over taste and flavor. Smaller crops mean paying someone more to pick tomatoes or strawberries and let’s be serious, in America, we’re all about efficiency. If that means sacrificing quality and flavor, well farmers and shippers don’t have too many qualms over that. And neither do American shoppers who seem to want to buy big, fist sized tomatoes rather than smaller, better tasting ones. Most Americans don’t even know what a real tomato is supposed to taste like and that my friend, is tragic. How can you expect people to eat their fruits and vegetables when they taste bad?
In general, American shoppers want everything available at all times versus buying and cooking based on seasonality. When you buy something out of season such as spinach or broccoli, that means it was picked before it was fully ripened and then shipped halfway across the world to make it to your plate. This long and arduous journey saps these prime vegetables and fruits of their natural flavors.
And finally let’s not forget about the good old government. European’s love for food and concern for only the best quality means their governments go beyond simply implementing safety and tax revenue laws. They have rules about actual production practices and while many of these rules may seem outdated or medieval, the extra care is reflected in the final product.
So there you have it. Americans are completely capable of accessing these same quality foods but we choose not to. Finding flavorful food isn’t a priority for us like it is for Europeans. All I can say is it looks like I’ll be growing my own tomatoes from now on.