Corked……vegetables?

Cork taint has been the bane of my life recently, but strangely enough not from the source that you might expect. Corked wine is one of the most annoying of wine faults – an invisible enemy that can strike at any time. There is nothing worse than putting your nose into a glass of wine and getting that unmistakeable smell of musty cardboard, wet dog and something that reminds me of a particular stairwell at school. That is the smell of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole to any science geeks out there) and it basically means the wine is good for nothing other than pouring down the drain. Heartbreaking at any time, and particularly if found in a bottle you have been saving for a special occasion.

But recently TCA has been plaguing me from a completely different source….vegetables. Yes, really.

It all started with a regular pot of mince that my husband had cooked for dinner. Nothing too unusual there, and he does make a pretty mean spag bol. That is until we tasted it….hmmm a little musty, not quite up to scratch. Another taste, definitely something odd going on here. Then it hit us – the mince was corked. Not even funky-around-the-edges kind of corked, but full on mouldy-cardboard corked. Completely inedible and fit only for the compost. But before we consigned it to our food waste bin we decided to do a bit of investigating. And it turned out that the culprit that had managed to taint the entire pot was one measly clove of garlic.

The next occasion happened a couple of weeks later only this time the culprit wasn’t garlic, but instead was a new potato. The other ones from the same bag were fine, but this one in particular was definitely corked. Next up was an evening train journey with some friends where we shared some wine and snacks. This time it was the baby carrots that were at fault. So much for the healthy option to go with our dip…

Then most recently I found myself in a restaurant with a group of friends and was telling this exact story to them. When I said that one of the beetroots in my beetroot salad was corked I think at first they thought I was saying it for effect. That is until I passed the offending piece around and saw the looks of revulsion on each of their faces. TCA at work again. At this point I did consider telling the waiter, but I think sending a bottle of wine back for being corked is one thing. Sending some vegetables back for the same reason…quite another thing.

So where, I hear you ask, does this come from? What is the root cause of the TCA epidemic and is it really on the increase? Well, that leads me into the realms of speculation as I am no food scientist and nor do I have any hard data on the subject.

TCA is formed by fungi in the presence of moisture and chlorinated phenols. In terms of wine, cork taint occurs when naturally occurring fungi in cork bark comes into contact with chlorine – which in the past has been used to clean corks (this doesn’t happen now, hence the decrease in incidence of cork taint versus some years ago). It can also pass into wine via barrels or wooden pallets where TCA can be formed.

In terms of vegetables, it is striking that all of the ones I have had problems with are root vegetables, and so may have picked up fungal spores from the soil which could produce the TCA. As for the chlorine, a quick internet search reveals that baby carrots in particular are washed in chlorinated water as a means to keep them fresh when packaged. Similarly, chlorine can be used in the bleaching process in garlic production. Perhaps then corked vegetables are simply a bad side effect of producing the fresh, pre-washed vegetables people seem to desire these days…

As for whether corked vegetables are on the increase, from my experience it is definitely something that I am noticing more and more. And it is not just vegetables. I have also had the odd corked apple and glass of orange juice – and I’m even finding particular streets to be corked lately. But of course this doesn’t necessarily indicate a causal connection. It is entirely possible that since embarking on the MW course I am more aware of cork taint and have developed a lower threshold for picking up on TCA – and so therefore am just more receptive to it. More data would be needed from a lot more people (nevermind being collected a bit more scientifically) in order to establish any sort of trend.

So, have you noticed musty vegetables lately or picked up on cork taint in unexpected places? I would love to hear if anyone else has had similar problems.

And if so, what is to be done about it? Increased use of screwcaps and altering the method of making corks has certainly helped to decrease cork taint in wine, but as for vegetables…well, let’s just say I am very careful now to gingerly smell every clove of garlic before I cook with it. Prevention may just be more feasible than cure for now.

Emma

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