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How Weather Affects Flavor

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Have you been trying the cantaloupes the year?  Man, it seems like no matter where they come from—farmer’s market, grocery store, home garden—the cantaloupes have been as buttery and sweet as you could possibly want them to be.And the blueberries and raspberries?  No tartness at all!Just the strong flavor of perfectly ripe berry.  This got us to thinking.  What is it that makes an on or off year for a particular crop?  What has to be happening outside to produce the sweetest fruit and the most flavorful vegetables?  How does the weather affect the taste of a crop?

Sweltering Summers

Hot, sticky weather is the norm this time of year in Maryland.  Walking from a temperature-controlled building into the outside world is sometimes like being punched in the chest, having a pail of water dumped on your face, and then instantly switching your entire respiratory system to Jell-O compatibility.  In a word, it’s gross.  Interestingly enough, for as moist as you feel walking around outside, many years, there isn’t a drop of actual moisture to be found.  Very dry conditions are not at all uncommon here, so along with the heavy heat, crops typically have less water than they’d probably like.

Stress from dryness and oppressive heat is a common cause of bitter and unpleasant vegetables, notably cucumbers.  Cucumber plants contain chemicals called cucurbitacin, and in low levels, the bitter taste that accompanies them isn’t noticeable.  Distress from the heat and lack of water causes the plant to pump higher amounts of cucurbitacin into the cucumbers, causing a nasty taste, particularly at the ends.  Bitterness can also occur in cool season crops, like lettuce and other greens, due to heat exposure.  Increased light and temperatures signal to the plant that it’s time to abandon ship, triggering the bolting process.  Bolting, along with making the leaves tough, makes the plant really bitter.

But, hot dry conditions aren’t always a bad thing for your crop, and for some crops, drought conditions at particular times are a must to achieve best taste.  During the droughts of 2012, many orchards reported that though their peaches were smaller than usual, the sweetness and flavor were outstanding.  Without a lot of water, yields may be small and so, too, the fruits and vegetables you harvest, but this can sometimes serve to create hyper-concentrated flavor.  Peaches and melons will be sugary, peppers will be fiery, and onions, radishes, and garlic will really clear out the nasal passages, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Grapes are also known to ripen quickly and become sweet in hot, dry weather, which may be good news for your desserts, but bad news if you like to make your own wine.

Washout Weather

It’s hard to imagine any farmer getting mad at rain, especially here, when rains are sometimes few and far between, and many farms are dealing with acres upon acres of thirsty corn and soybean.  There are farmers that stare up at the sky with anxiety when storm clouds pass, and it’s because their entire crop can be ruined by a just a few badly timed rains.

Winemakers hate, hate, hate a harvest time rain.  While other fruit orchards may have more or less tasty fruit from year to year without having a disaster on their hands, vintners can’t really afford to have an off crop due to the delicate nature of what they’re using it to produce.  Wetter conditions than expected can do a number of detrimental things to a grape harvest.  Grapes that have received a lot of moisture will swell up with water, producing a watery dilute flavor without the required balance of acid and sugar.  The overcast conditions that accompany the rain will also prevent the grapes from ripening.  These diluted, unbalanced, and unripened grapes are basically useless to the winemaker, and as it takes 600 to 800 grapes to produce a single bottle of wine, he definitely doesn’t want to have any useless grapes in his vineyard.

Chilly Cold

In the case of several cool weather crops, a good frosting is actually said to significantly improve the flavor of vegetables.  Kale, chard, Brussels, and lettuce become much sweeter after exposure to frost.  Remember how these same crops react to heat by initiating the bolting process?  Similarly, the sweetening of these crops is a survival response.  To avoid cold damage, these plants will pump sugars into all of its parts to make it more difficult for cells to freeze.  Best flavor, then, occurs when these crops are exposed to one good frost shortly before harvest.

Keeping detailed notes about the weather can assist you in improving the crops in your own garden.  Be sure to note the temperature each day and outdoor conditions.  Put a rain gauge in your garden so that you can accurately assess how much rainfall your garden receives throughout the season and note how much rain was received each day.  If you have a very tasty year with a certain crop, you can look back at the weather conditions and do what you can to try and recreate some of them.