In a world with spray-on cheese, we should hardly be surprised when scientists come up with something that sounds simultaneously impossible and slightly disgusting. Supermarket shelves everywhere are stacked with lurid produce warped about as far away from its natural form as it’s possible to be. Today, I ate a bag of lamb and mint flavoured crisps. I can’t decide whether it’s more or less appetising to think that the makers put a lamb and some mint in a giant blender and dusted the result on some potatoes, or if the whole lot is just a collection of vaguely sheepy chemicals. Both possibilities are pretty horrible.
Our obsession with changing the way things taste is not limited to the artificial elements of our diet. One of the most controversial topics in modern food focuses around the genetic modification of crops and livestock. The theory goes that by looking to control physical plant and animal characteristics, farmers can create produce that is more efficient, more resistant to disease and produces a higher yield than naturally grown alternatives. This type of engineering has been used at every layer of the food chain since the 1980s, and has been a contentious issue ever since.
The sheer amount of rumour and fake news thrown around about GMO farming has helped make many people extremely sceptical of the whole concept of food engineering. In a recent survey, it was revealed that as many as 40 per cent of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are bad for your health, despite very few people being able to explain why. The result is that many things that seem unnatural or too good to be true are regarded with a good deal of suspicion by an increasingly scornful customer base.
Well aware of this hostile atmosphere, one farm in California has set about proving to the world that incredible, mind-bending produce can be created without the need for weird science. Based in Bakersfield, The Grapery is an independent company dedicated to the perfection of one of nature’s most popular fruits - the humble grape.
Established in 1996, the business’ founding fathers were tired of the bland, flavourless fruits available at most American supermarkets. As one Grapery grower explained back in 2013, despite the apparent variety of choices available to consumers, years of breeding and engineering focused on durability rather than taste have produced an extremely hardy but ultimately flavourless product. This was a tragedy for grape enthusiasts everywhere. It was time to take the power back.
Looking to emulate the success of the apple industry, who have managed to provide customers with a wealth of different, distinct breeds that all offer something unique, The Grapery set about using natural breeding techniques to put grapes back on the map. They would not have to wait long for success. Within a few years, The Grapery were able to tear up the fruit growers rulebook and unveil a grape that tasted like cotton candy.
Since first launching in 2011, the cotton candy grapes have gone on to generate a worldwide buzz. Chef Spencer Gray described the flavour as “amazingly sweet”, before adding that: “It's like there's nothing to stop the sweetness. It just lingers on your tongue.” Before long, the grapes were starring on Buzzfeed blogs and on celebrity radio shows - wowing audiences everywhere with their unique taste. Within three years, production had increased from a two-acre plot to over 100 acres in order to keep up with demand. The future of fruit was finally here.
Though it might seem impossible that a fruit can naturally taste like candy floss, there is no chemical witchcraft at play. The Grapery insist that their star product is the result of a careful cross-breeding process between two different subspecies of grape. Expert horticulturist David Cain, who first stumbled upon the cotton candy flavour, revealed that plants were first grown in a lab before being transferred to a field when in the embryonic stage of development. In order to get the desired balance of flavour right without the assistance of artificial additives or engineering, the process can take up to 15 years of careful monitoring and experimentation. Despite the patience needed, the reviews speak for themselves.
After establishing themselves with their cotton candy speciality, The Grapery has since expanded their repertoire to include other sweet shop staples. Today, the business sells gum drop and moon drop flavours and has announced plans to recreate gummy bears and skittles in future breeds. All the while, they are committed to continuing to use techniques that are 100 per cent natural.
In many ways, genetic modification and chemical additives can make our lives infinitely easier. Because of their natural growing process, the cotton candy grapes are only available for a few months each year. However, The Grapery have also proved that by relying on technology to provide our food, we’re missing out on a whole heap of opportunities that nature can offer. They may be more expensive, take longer and be harder to find, but when it comes to flavour, The Grapery prove that au natural is the only way to go.