Mr VegHead says...

Vegetable musings from Sea Spring Seeds

Vegetables and the ‘basic tastes’

At first glance, the act of eating is a very simple process: put food in your mouth, chew it into small bits, and then swallow so that the mouthful passes down into your stomach. There must be, however, more to eating than this. Otherwise, how can we account for the thousands of cookery books catering for almost every type of cuisine imaginable? Credit for this must surely be given to the most sensitive of organs – the tongue – which elevates eating from an act of necessity to an activity of pleasure.

The tongue is our main taste centre. Coated with tiny chemical detectors the tongue analyses food as it passes through the mouth. These ‘detectors’ are the taste buds, and they are programmed to distinguish between five basic tastes: bitter, salty, acid, sweetness and umami. In varying degrees, these tastes add personality to vegetables, either individually or, more normally, in a mixture that is sometimes difficult to sort out.

Bitter pill

Bitterness is a taste with a split personality. On the up side, vegetables such as swedes and turnips are rescued from the disgrace of blandness by a slight touch of bitterness, while salads can be stimulated by the addition of bitter endive leaves. In contrast, bitter potatoes and cucumbers are normally so unpalatable that they cannot be eaten without a gag response.
Fortunately for gardeners, it is possible to exercise some control over bitterness in vegetables, making them more acceptable to the palate. In the case of endives, for instance, plants can be blanched so that their bitterness doesn’t become overpowering, while older, stronger-tasting leaves can be banned to the compost heap. Because bitterness in potatoes is caused by light, you should diligently ridge up the rows to cover the tubers with soil and then store the tubers in the dark as soon as they are harvested. With cucumbers, modern varieties have had the bitterness bred out of them, so it is better to grow these rather than older heritage types that might in certain growing conditions yield bitter-tasting fruit.

Passandra cucumebr

The modern varieties of cucumbers, like this mini cucumber, Passandra, have had all bitterness bred out of them.

Salt of the earth

Maybe it’s my taste buds, but none of the vegetables growing in my garden can be described as having a salty taste. Intuitively, I feel the salt is in there somewhere, though I can’t prove it with my tongue. Until the situation changes, I will just have to rely on packaged salt as an essential ingredient in the kitchen.

An acid tongue

Acidity creates a tart or sour taste, and its indispensible role in vegetables is often under appreciated and usually misunderstood. Its true value reaches a peak in tomatoes, where acidity comes together in a yin and yang partnership with sugar to create, in the best varieties, the perfect sweet and sour food. Much of the acidity is found in the gelatinous mixture that surrounds the seed, while the sugar generally resides in the fleshy part of the fruit. Because of this division of labour, you should ignore the advice of cookery writers who suggest removing the seeds before cooking tomatoes. Their removal means that the all-important acidity would go with them, leaving behind fruit with nothing to accentuate the sweetness.

Orkado tomato fruit

Tomaotes are a classic sweet/sour fruit, with the best flavoured fruit being the ones with the best  balance. Tomato var. Orkado.

You can create zingier-tasting tomatoes in the garden by feeding the flowering plants with a fertiliser high in potassium. As simple as is it, such a practice works because potassium boosts the fruit’s acidity and increases the ratio of tartness to sweetness.

How sweet it is

Sugar concentration determines sweetness, which oftentimes can make or break a vegetable. For example, if it weren’t for sugars, dullness would prevail in both beetroots and carrots, and sweet corn just wouldn’t exist.

Beetroot var. Forono

The flavour of beetroot due to the hint of sugar. Beetroot var. Forono

The sugar in carrots make them better flavoured.

Without the sugar in carrots the flavour would be quite bland.

Sweet corn var. Northern Extra Sweet

Sweet corn just wouldn’t exist without sugar. It is even in the name of this variety, ‘Northern Extra Sweet’.


Additionally, the best onions are elevated to culinary heaven by a shot of sweetness, which becomes more noticeable when the chopped flesh is caramelised by long cooking times.

Harvested onions of Ailsa Craig.

The flesh of some onions can contain a lot of sweetness. Onion var. Ailsa Craig.

Using a little strategic thinking, gardeners can manipulate the sweetness of many vegetables almost at will. In swedes and parsnips, it is just a matter of delaying harvest until the cold weather sets in – sugar production in both is stimulated by low temperatures.

A cold period will make the flesh of swedes sweeter.

Swedes get sweeter after they have experienced a cold period. Swede var. Marian.


Tomatoes and peppers are renown for their sweetness but must be managed to maximize their concentration of sugar. And, since the fruit get sweeter as they turn colour and ripen, the best way to do that is to allow them to fully mature on the plant before harvesting.

Unripe (green) and sweeter, ripe (red) chilli peppers.

Peppers get sweeter as they ripen up as more sugars develop. Chilli var. Thai Green Curry.

Desirable though they are, sugars are sometimes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Potatoes are often victims of unwanted sweetness, and tubers stored in the cold get sweeter as their starches are broken down. Unless you positively want sugar, you can reverse the trend by storing the tubers at room temperature for a few days before cooking – sugar will then be reduced to an acceptable level.


Unlike the other tastes, umami is something of a ghost that has no obvious presence. Often described as ‘savoury’ or ‘meaty’, it supposedly adds depth and fullness of flavor. Potatoes and tomatoes are reported to be umami rich, which may help explain their world-wide popularity ¬– just think of all those chips drenched in ketchup. For more of a fix, you could also grow Chinese cabbage and cook it with soy sauce. Both apparently rate highly on the umami scale, though to be honest, I simply don’t understand how, or even if, it works.