Not all carrots are created equal. Neither are apples, eggplants, celery stalks or celeriac roots. Despite our general familiarity with vegetables, each one can be vastly different in shape, colour, smell and taste, making it hard to find the best varieties. Your local farmers’ market is a great start, but what do you do when you get there?
We asked Shane Roberts, veteran produce merchant and owner of The Vege Box, who’s clientele includes Cornersmith, Two Chaps and Mecca in Alexandria, to guide us through his tips for recognising the best-quality produce.
“No fruit or vegetable will ever taste as good as when it's in season,” says Roberts. But the finer details of seasonality always easy to glean. Seasonality guides are easy to find and a good start, but they don’t account for extreme weather or changes in farming production.
A great clue is the price. “When something's out of season it’s expensive,” says Roberts. “You can get certain lines all year ’round, but when they're forced to grow out of season there's a lot more labour involved.” Contrary to the price tag, Roberts says the expensive stuff is usually the worst-quality produce as it’s often either imported, held in storage for a long time, or grown in a glasshouse or hydroponically.
But confusingly, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean good. “If something is too cheap to be true, there's a reason,” says Roberts. “They’re not doing you a favour. They’re doing it because this thing has no shelf life.” Roberts says there’s nothing wrong with picking up three punnets of strawberries for $5, but only if they’re going to be eaten that day. Wait another day and you’ll probably be dealing with mouldy mush. The other way to judge seasonality is simply to ask. “The key to understanding is speaking to people,” says Roberts. “That’s how you're going to gain the best knowledge.”
After seasonality, the next step is finding the ugliest fruits and vegetables. Roberts says deformities should be celebrated – produce that looks like it has been Photoshopped for a supermarket catalogue was probably grown hydroponically or in glasshouses and should be ignored. “If it's weathered, that indicates it's been grown out in a field and in soil,” he says. “That’s how plants were meant to grow. You just can’t beat it.”
There are a few exceptions to the rule, and knowing them requires educating yourself about providence. Roberts mentions a pair of Cambodian famers in NSW growing exceptional glasshouse-grown cherry tomatoes. “Because of their seed stock and hands-on approach, you can get a good cherry tomato all year round if you find the right person,” says Roberts. The other exception is high-sugar-content fruits. “If there's any blemishes or holes, it's like a chink in the armour,” explains Roberts. “It's going to break down fast because of oxidisation.”
The next element to take into consideration is size. “I prefer small fruit and veg in general,” says Roberts. “For example, smaller onions are sweeter and give a more complex flavour. I find flavour diminishes the bigger they get.” Roberts does say hard fruits, such as pears and apples, can be an exception to this rule.
Finally, when you’re picking your in-season, tiny, ugly fruits and vegetables, look for the ones with healthy stalks, leaves and stems still attached. “One thing that shows a vegetable's freshness is the leafy part,” says Roberts. “The big chain supermarkets probably couldn't sell beetroots with tops on, because by the time it goes through their supply chain it’s going to look tired and old.”.
That kind of approach means we often miss out on perfectly edible sections of our fruit and veggies. “You can use a whole beetroot [including the leafy part],” says Roberts. “One of the best meals I ever had was at St John in London. It was just a piece of pigeon with the entire beetroot. Carrot-top pesto is another classic. Kim [Douglas] at Two Chaps does it and it tastes fantastic.”
If after those steps you’re still unsure about the quality of your produce, Roberts says to, use your nose. “You can't fake the smell,” he says. “If the fruit or vegetable smells fresh or sweet, that's a good indicator it's going to taste that way as well.”