To say that we're in the midst of an epidemic is no overstatement. The dreaded “cork taint", anathema when present in wine, has found its way into our fruits and vegetables. And while it's estimated that somewhere between 2 and 5% of wines sealed by natural cork closures are "corked", my a posteriori evidence would suggest that the percentage in fresh produce dwarfs this figure.
Cork taint in wine can consist of a number of complex factors, several of which may synergize to malignantly afflict the beverage. But the most common polluter is a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, mercifully shortened to "TCA”. In extreme cases (which are the most convenient as they are the easiest to recognize), the inherent characteristics of the wine in question will be entirely superseded by vile, musty aromas, variously described as moldy cardboard, wet dog (assumedly a stray), or summertime garbage strike. Wines that are subtly affected may simply show as less expressive versions of themselves - this is dangerous, of course, as the uninitiated would just assume that the wine sucks, not recognizing that their particular bottle suffers from TCA at low levels. In addition to transmittance from afflicted corks, TCA and its fetid brethren can be found in cardboard, wood, and other unsuspecting agents. There's even documentation of wineries themselves being infested by TCA - a winemaker's nightmare if there ever was one!
As Dr. Jamie Goode points out in his recent book, Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine, cork taint is one of the only wine “flaws” that can be indisputably considered a fault, regardless of the degree of infection, as it’s characteristics originate from an outside source as opposed to being chemically imbedded in the wine due to farming or fermentation. (For identical reasons, I consider the aromas and flavours of new oak to be universally objectionable… contentious, I know).
There isn't anything particularly new about food being corked, but I’m sure that it’s getting worse. I stopped eating bananas several years ago due to their overwhelming propensity towards corkiness, and the tendency in apples is almost as discouraging. A deplorable amount of Calgary's available beets were corked this winter, and last week I encountered my first corky garlic clove. I once discovered a particular product from a local "craft juice” company to be obscenely corked, the culprit revealing itself to be carrot which is another repeat offender. And a few months ago, I was served a corked dish at an excellent local restaurant. The kitchen staff were accommodating enough to let me pick through the isolated components whereby I discovered the befouling variable to be parsley sprigs.
I have never found cork taint in citrus fruits or cruciferous vegetables. Perhaps the peel serves as a deterrent in the former, the presence of sulfur inhibiting it in the latter - or perhaps I've just been lucky so far. There's no science behind these potentially fatuous conjectures, but the question remains - what in Jah’s name is TCA, or something that uncannily resembles it, doing in our fruits and vegetables?!? As is the case with wine, I don't buy industrially farmed produce, nor do I support purveyors of mass-manufacturing. I shop at independent grocers who, when possible in our northern extreme, source from local farmers. But to draw further similarities to wine, the problem probably hasn't anything to do with farming, but with packaging, as it pertains to both shipping and storage. As mentioned, cardboard can be “corked”, and certainly it’s the containers that fruits and vegetables are sentenced to after harvest that renders them corky.
Is it really TCA? Who knows… and who cares? Does it really matter which nefarious halophenol is corrupting our food? The fact is that fruits and vegetables, even those that might be farmed meticulously or organically on as small of a scale as you care to idealize, are being corrupted by variables that could be easily avoided. Perhaps it’s up to wine professionals and savvy amateurs to catalyze the revolution against corked produce. After all, those uninitiated to the vinous malediction, even if they have sensitive palates, might just think that they were merely unlucky enough to purchase a fetid batch of fruit or veg without being able to definitively identify the problem.
If you agree that this is a problem, and a dishearteningly pervasive one, please share this with anyone you can think of who might actually care - especially if they're in a better position to voice the concern than I am. Get grocers, farmers, produce distributors, and farmer's market curators in the know! In the meantime, I'll be the weirdo in the produce section imposing a maniacal screening process on every single item prior to admittance to my basket…