by Lila Das Gupta

One thing that scientists still can't fully explain is why a fruit or vegetable grown in one place can taste so different to one grown a few miles up the road.

Pink rhubarb stemsI've just written a piece about a taste test I conducted on rhubarb for the November issue of Gardeners' World magazine, which includes a Top 10 of the best varieties for flavour. One of the things my editor had asked me to write about is how we taste fruit - the elements that go to make up the experience, which got me thinking about taste buds.

Does age affect taste? Do smokers taste more or less than non-smokers? It was a fascinating subject to research.

One thing that scientists still can't fully explain is why a fruit or vegetable grown in one place can taste so different to one grown a few miles up the road. There are so many variables that come in to the equation. I have found the taste of strawberries can actually differ depending on what time of day you pick them (mornings are definitely best!). And I can now tell you that I've eaten enough rhubarb to be able to conclude that Yorkshire-grown rhubarb really is the very best.

Taste is also a highly subjective thing, because it's our brain which does the processing, and therein lies the difference in perception.

So what of the humble taste bud? Apparently the number of taste buds we have (and therefore the extent to which we can taste food) is genetically determined. Nature may not have given you the eyes or hair you wanted, but there is an easy way to check if you score high on the taste bud lottery.

Food writer, Glyn Christian’s fascinating book How to Cook Without Recipes, gives a fun way to check on the number you have. He says you should take a paper file-hole reinforcer, some dark food colouring, a tissue, a magnifying glass, then a mirror or a friend:

1. Dab food colouring on the tip of your tongue

2. Rinse off and pat dry

3. Put the paper file-reinforcer no further than 5mm from the tip of your tongue

4. Count the colour defined taste buds with the help of a magnifying glass and a friend (or mirror)

According to Mr Christian, "super tasters have more than 25 small evenly clustered taste buds within the circle". It seems that "slower tongues have bigger but fewer taste buds". Women tend to score higher than men. This will test your receptors for sweetness, you can try the same thing on other parts of the tongue for other types of taste like 'salty' or 'bitter'.

There are a few other good tests in the book if you want to go down this road.

Not included in our Top 10 Rhubarbs for Taste, but certainly worth an honourable mention is a heritage variety called 'Cawood Delight'. It is not easy to grow for beginners, being somewhat temperamental and I didn't care for its floury texture at all (though our Chef taster, John McClements, thought highly of it for serving with meat dishes). I loved this variety of rhubarb because it was such an extraordinarily beautiful, dark beast. It is probably the most handsome of the rhubarbs I've ever seen and still looked good when it was cooked.  An acquired taste perhaps.

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Talkback: Rhubarb
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Gardeners' World Web User 03/09/2010 at 22:47

Taste buds do seem to deteriorate with age, my 90 year old mother has complained all year that the vegetables grown in her garden, have no flavour, whilst everyone else thinks they are great. In the case of rhubarb, I truly believe it is the nastiest thing one could grow in the garden, and maybe taste bud failure could be an advantage when consuming it.

Gardeners' World Web User 04/09/2010 at 22:19

Replanted a rhubarb crown which was'nt doing well. Was able to pull half a dozen stalks and made some rhubarb crumble. Ate it with homemade custard lovely treat. Think you are missing out HeavyHourse.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/01/2011 at 17:33

This is really NOT about HOW to grow Rhubarb. Gotta find it somewhere else. DISAPOINTING

Gardeners' World Web User 04/06/2011 at 14:45

I have had the same rhubarb plant growing in my garden since I moved in 18 years ago, but this year, just as I was planning to lift and split the crown, it flowered! If I lift and split it, will the crown continue to flower, or can I expect to harvest my rhubarb next year?

Gardeners' World Web User 07/08/2011 at 17:19

My comment yesterday seems to be lost in the ether-so here it is again! Can anyone tell me whether I can put large rhubarb leaves in my compost bin, as I have read conflicting advice,and wonder whether oxalic acid would be a problem. My bin works well and is heaving with THOUSANDS of small pink worms so I wouldn't like to poison them! Does Monty Dom put these leaves in his super compost system, I wonder?

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