Describe the humble tomato as a love apple, pomo di mori, pomi d’oro, or pomo d’amori and it immediately conjures visions of beautiful fragrant, juicy fruits, Mediterranean skies and the mingling aromas of basil, garlic and fresh grassy olive oil. A far cry from the perfectly engineered, orange globes manufactured in Dutch mega glasshouses.
The tomato was introduced by the Spaniards in the 16th century from South America, but outside Italy it was not widely eaten until much later. In his eponymous Herbal (published in 1597) Gerard described the Apple of Love as “chamfered, uneven and bunsped out in many places”, “of ranke and stinking savour” and claimed “they yield very little nourishment to the bodie and the same naught and corrupt”. With typical English disdain he noted that Spaniards and Italians esteemed them a delicacy eaten “with pepper, salt and oyle.”
Originally grown as an ornamental plant, the fruits were thought to be poisonous and there was more interest in their alleged aphrodisiac properties than culinary merits. It is now one of the staples of the supermarket shopping basket and an invaluable member of the five-a-day cohort. However, after generations of commercial breeding we have succeeded in producing a perfectly formed, tasteless super food incapable of stirring the most ardent romeo.
We can now enjoy tomatoes all year round nurtured on a carefully controlled hydroponic diet in an artificial environment, with a long shelf-life and an enviable number of air miles, but somewhere along the way we lost the plot. The marketing men sought to seduce us with fruit on the vine, but all they sold us was the scent of the tomato foliage. However, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.
So what is the lovelorn romeo or epicurean to do? The best tomatoes are grown outdoors in southern Europe and most of the time just left to get on with it, although I suspect that any French gardener will tell you it’s all down to the terroir. Our climate is just not suitable for growing real tomatoes and by the time you get this far north, even under cover, it’s another attempt at climbing mount impossible. However it is worth all the nurturing, anxiety and stained fingers to grow something that not only looks like a tomato but tastes wonderful.
I have been trying to grow tomatoes for the last four years with varying degrees of success. For the first two years I produced beautiful green fruit and perfected my chutney recipe. Last year I harvested a respectable amount of ripe fruit from one of my four varieties, but was this just the result of an exceptionally good summer?
This year the Head Gardener and I did some careful analysis and decided a new approach was necessary. We came to the conclusion that because our soil is so very well-drained and alkaline all the liquid feed we applied drained away and any available potassium was made unavailable by the high pH of the soil. So we tried grow bags (organic and seaweed enriched) and although not the sunniest of years we managed to have a mini glut of ripe tomatoes. Although optimising the growing conditions is important, this far north the choice of variety is also critical. So far we have tried a dozen or so varieties and a small plum tomato (Lucciola) is the most successful: prolific with a very good sweet flavour. I’ve not manged to find a suitable variety of one of the larger tomatoes yet but there are plenty to try.
The vines are still producing, and we’re still picking enough to have fresh tomatoes every day and any spare are roasted with garlic and herbs and frozen. The small ones are frozen whole without pre-cooking and will add a wonderful splash of flavour to winter soups and casseroles. There will doubtless be enough for a few jars of chutney too. Soon it will be time to clear the vines and look forward to next year. As much as I love tomatoes, I have become accustomed to abstaining during the winter months and to anticipate the first home-grown fruits in July.