Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More Than One Way to Skin a Kumquat

My recent piece on citrus seems to have struck a chord, based on the multiple comments and the fact that GenomeWeb's blog picked up on it as well. That's all very gratifying, tbut also stirred me to notice what I had missed on the subject. No, not the obvious point that getting some genome sequences is just a tiny first step to my grand bioengineering dream. And not what the TIGS review pointed out, that American markets in particular have tended to favor uniformity over quality or novelty (though perhaps that is changing, at least in high-end markets). Nope, what bugs me now is missing the obvious about kumquats.

Now, as I mentioned, they're hard to find. I checked some mail order places and the seasons apparently vary depending on where they are grown. But at Christmas time I could find only one market -- and I checked a half dozen -- which was selling them. Even the same high end chain that sold them next to work didn't offer them at the outlet nearest my home. So, don't be embarassed if you've never tried one.

The first beauty of a kumquat is you eat the whole thing -- skin and all (it is advisable to spit the pip). But the second beauty is within that -- the two very different tastes. The skin is thin but very sweet, whereas the flesh is tart.

Natural kumquats therefore are a binary package, and an unusual one. I'm trying to think of other fruits eaten skin-on for which the skin has a distinctive and pleasant taste. I eat lots of fruit skins, but most are just texture & roughage as far as I can tell. Concord grapes are an obvious exception -- I'll confess to swiping them from my neighbor's trellis growing up. The pulp is gteen and much like a seedless green grape in taste (but decidedly NOT seedless!) whereas the skin has the delicious Concord-ness to it. Many other grapes are probably similar. Certainly the winemakers use skin-in or no skin as a point of control over taste.

Now, with all citrus the skin and pulp can have very different aromas. Orange zest adds a distinctive flavor which is different than adding orange juice to a recipe. With a bit of genetic sleuthing (GFP limes?), the promoters responsible for specific production in skin and flesh can be worked out. And then the engineering can get another dimension -- different tastes in kumquat skin and pulp.

Clearly what I have in mind is a lot of genetically engineered fruit, which I will be happy to taste. GMO foods have not met much acceptance, but as some have pointed out before a significant issue is that most engineered traits have been to benefit producers (pest / pesticide resistance) with no benefit to the consumer beyond price. Early attempts at longer shelf life tomatoes and carrots flopped, but that's still more of a benefit for the producer than the consumer. Nutritionally-augmented foods (e.g. "golden rice") address nutritional needs which Western activists don't face.

Present something really novel and exciting in terms of flavor experience, and then you'll see a real separation of those who are truly committed to a no-GMO purity and those who can be tempted away. Furthermore, simply rewiring existing citrus biosynthetic pathways would dodge some of the other arguments raised against GMOs, in terms of introducing allergens or such.

It is a bit of optimistic to think I'll ever see a line of flavor-augmented mix-and-match kumquats. But if anyone starts making some, I'll be happy to volunteer for the taste testing squad.


Lucas Brouwers said...

"Kumquat taste testing squad" - that does have a nice ring to it!

An entire new world of flavours and colours would certainly be exciting.. But after the novelty wears off, wouldn't 'new standards' emerge afterwards? Too much choice can overwhelm consumers..

Diversity of fruits and vegetables existed before. Consider http://www.nextnature.net/2009/08/why-are-carrots-orange-it-is-political/">carrots for example. They used to have a wide spectrum of colours, but now only one (orange) remains, due to political/cultural reasons. I guess people are drawn to certain standards.. Whether 'the long tail of fruit' will be profitable enough, will be an interesting question indeed!

Keith Robison said...

Just blanch my produce dreams!

You raise a good point -- there is a huge diversity of produce that for various reasons doesn't see commercial success. Backyard garden catalogs are the refuges of many -- I grew up on golden raspberries, which most Americans don't even know exist. You can find some other colors of carrots, though I think I've only seen variations on orange (but some nearly red). Still, there must be about 2-3X as many varieties of produce in a typical American supermarket now than when I was growing up. I still remember my father bringing back exotic fruit from a California business trip -- mangoes and papayas! But, even there we are limited -- perhaps 3 varieties of mangoes, whereas in the Caribbean I understand you can find dozens.

So, my dream may never, well, bear fruit. But, perhaps some DIY genetic engineer with a green thumb will rescue the idea.