It’s not just me, customers regularly remark on the incredible flavour of the meat, and milk, that we raise here. But why is our produce so delicious: what gives ‘taste’, and what makes up all those flavour compounds that excite our taste buds and provide a truly satisfying mouthful to savour?
I have a theory about this and, as with most things in farming, the answer is multi-faceted.
Complex nutritional richness creates complex flavour
Until the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, our taste buds have meant the difference between life and passing on our genes, or death. Just as animals select the best from a wide diversity of forage, our innate desires and preferences would have been to hunt and gather food that contained a broad range of health-giving nutrients.
A palate, uncorrupted by refined and processed food, would have sought out foods with complex nutritional richness and it is this that we would have experienced as a meal that is both tasty and satisfying. Whether in fruit or vegetables, meat or milk, we enjoy the depth of complexity of flavour that can only come from produce containing a complex nutritional richness.
Nutritionally replete animals are healthy and content
And when it comes to animal produce, the more I research this and the more I experience, the more I am drawn to the conclusion that the health, and contentedness, of the animal is linked to the complexity of taste in its meat and milk, and that both are directly related to the diversity and nutrient value of its diet, as well as a stress-free life.
Keeping animals in a stress-free environment and giving them access to a diverse diet containing lots of different plant species effectively provides them with a salad bar that includes hedgerows and trees. This allows them to naturally select what they need to eat in order to receive optimum nutrition and maintain good health. These in turn are linked to the animal’s contentedness and, therefore, to the conclusion that nutritionally replete animals are both healthy and content.
Nutritional richness and complexity of flavour are also affected by geographical location and type of soil (the local ‘terroir’), the health and diversity of the soil microbiome, the farming method and grazing system used, the diversity of diet, the breed of animal and speed of growth.
Flavour starts in the soil
Just as we get our nutrients from the animal, the animal gets its nutrients from the plant, which is fed from the soil. The soil is the key, or rather the micro-organisms in the soil, with which the plant has a symbiotic relationship: microbes mine minerals and provide a wide diversity of nutrients at the plant root zone, via the Poop Loop, for the plant to absorb. It then produces the thousands of different compounds and phytonutrients it needs in order to grow, reproduce, attract pollinators and protect itself from disease or pest attack.
There are a myriad of phytonutrients, including antioxidants, flavonoids, flavones, isoflavones, catechins, anthocyanidins, isothiocyanates, caretenoids, to name but a few. They are produced by the plant as part of its natural survival strategy. Along with the natural sugars, vitamins and minerals in the plant, the phytonutrients all add to the complexity and diversity of nutrients and, therefore, flavour of the plant.
In its daily battle for survival the plant responds to its environment. It’s fascinating to delve into the life of plants and find out how the seasons, weather, competition with other species, grazing patterns, pests, soil type, even the time of day, all affect how the plant reacts and what compounds and phytonutrients it produces.
Phytonutrients create a myriad of flavours
This was brought home to me recently as I walked through one of our fields of herbs that is also home to over 20 species of wildflowers. As I walked, my boots crushed leaves and stems and as I went deeper into the field sweet floral herb-rich aromas wafted up. It was really incredible.
All these phytonutrients create a myriad of flavours in the plant that, when eaten by a cow, add depth and complexity to the flavour of the milk or meat it produces.
The more diverse the plant species, the more diverse the soil micro-organisms, which create complex nutrient cycling systems to feed the plant and subsequently the animal.
Natural vs conventional farming
In a conventional farming system, income is directly related to productivity: milk yield, speed of growth and final weight of an animal. The nutritional value of the end product is rarely considered and its flavour even less so.
The use of artificial fertiliser is widespread because it can make the grass grow faster. It is the plant equivalent of processed food that forces growth but in an unbalanced, unhealthy way. The plant can’t obtain a sufficient diversity of nutrients from the soil in the compressed time it has to grow on artificial fertiliser. The problem is further exacerbated as the chemical inputs upset soil biology, destroy essential links in the soil food web and lock up nutrients.
Conventional systems also feed grain and genetically modified soya to animals to speed up growth and increase milk yields. Even in organic systems, up to 40% of the diet can be grain. Grain is very high in carbohydrates, and leads to fast growth with a lot of fat, especially unhealthy omega 6.
In such systems, animals grow more quickly but are less healthy. The meat is often paler, higher in unhealthy fats, less nutritious and, therefore, less tasty as a result. Never is this more evident than when you eat a cheap fast-grown supermarket chicken: day-old chick to plucked and packed on a supermarket shelf in 42 days. And almost devoid of flavour.
So for the best flavour and nutritional value, look for food grown naturally, following an organic system but without the use of grains or other concentrates to speed growth.
Why slow food tastes better
Animals get their flavour from the food they eat and the way they are kept. We graze our animals in a way that replicates the natural grazing cycles of migrating herbivores in a holistic planned grazing system called mob-grazing. This not only leads to further diversity within the sward, but the long rest periods between grazing mean the plant roots have a chance to grow and make associations with soil microorganisms deep within the ground, giving them access to a further selection of minerals and other nutrients.
We also choose rare and native breeds because they are best suited to a natural grass-fed system and especially because they grow slowly. Slower growth means more forage passes through them from which they can assimilate nutrients to stay healthy and subsequently produce delicious, tasty meat and milk.
So, like water quenches our thirst, nutrients in their abundant diversity satisfy our hunger. Our innate desire for health-giving nutrients triggers our taste buds to recognise and appreciate health-giving foods.
As Wendell Berry famously said, “Eating inextricably influences agriculture”.
You have three votes (meals) a day. Your food choices directly support the farming methods and the industry that put the food on your plate: they influence not only your own health and wellbeing but that of the farm animals and the planet too.
Vote wisely: eat less meat but eat guilt-free meat… and milk!