Island Thyme

The most important thing I have learned about food, in the modest number of years I’ve been involved, lays in the old cliché, "the proof is in the pudding.” Put plainly, anyone can talk the talk, throw a few French culinary terms around, drop an appropriate wine pairing, or spout culinary trends; but when it comes down to it, can they really taste quality, and more importantly, can you?

There has been a growing movement in the past few years to purchase local produce as opposed to items that have been shipped from overseas, and when you live on an island, the number of things shipped from overseas is staggering. One of the biggest platforms of this movement is that the food grown locally tastes better. Is this true?

I have the privilege of meeting with a group of local business people once per week, and when I was asked to do a presentation about what I do, I decided to turn the tables on them and put them to the test. I took a page from my high school chemistry class and did a controlled experiment with food: can the average individual taste the difference between a locally grown or produced food and a similar item shipped to Vancouver Island? I only had a short time for my talk, so I limited the tasting to three items, two plant and one meat. I decided to keep it simple and use items that most people use regularly; tomatoes, cucumbers and sausages. On the local front, the tomatoes and cucumbers were from a farm in Cobble Hill and the sausage was from a local chicken farmer. On the not-so-local front, the tomato was from the grocery store (no location listed on the tomato or on the sign), the sausage was purchased from a local restaurant wholesaler, and the cucumber was the real test as it was from the Delta region on the lower mainland.

As with any experiment involving people, the types of people in the test-group can effect the outcome, so here are a couple of details about the group: it consisted of 10 individuals, 3 female and 7 male. All of these people are business owners, partners, or otherwise self-employed – so most have type "A” or "driver” personality profiles. With that in mind, here are the results of the tasting;

60% chose the Cowichan Valley tomato over the imported one.

70% chose the Cowichan Valley cucumber over the Delta one.

70% chose the Cowichan Valley sausage over the mass-produced one.

In this test group, 30% chose all three local products as tasting better, and none of them chose all three imported items as tasting better. Of course, there are flaws with this test, and to do this properly would involve a couple of hours and a few dozen ingredients, but I believe this gives a pretty good overview of what the results would be regardless. In a purely scientific analysis, the average individual can taste the difference 67% of the time, but in more detail, 30% of the people can taste the difference all the time and 20% were able to taste the difference only one out of three instances, which means that 80% of the people can taste the difference most of the time.

So yes, all the other platforms about buying local are important: saving the environment, keeping the local economy stimulated and food security; but for me, as a chef, the proof is still in the pudding. If I can get local food, that brings with it so many benefits and tastes better than imported, why wouldn’t I buy local? So the question is, "Can you taste the difference?”