Tomatoes: totally terrific again

March 11, 2016 § 6 Comments

Let’s talk about tomatoes: the fruit of love.

The Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato from South America in the 16th century, and in Italy it was known as pomo d’oro (golden apple). In France this became distorted to pomme d’amour — which duly led to the tomato being declared an aphrodisiac.

Big tomato dark backgrdYT

© Jane Powers

John Parkinson, the English herbalist and botanist, in his famous Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629) explained: “We call them in English, Apples of Love, Love-Apples, Golden Apples, or Amorous Apples”. He also pointed out: “Wee onely have them for curiosity in our Gardens, and for the amorous aspect or beauty of the fruit.” Tomatoes caught on as a regular food in Britain and Ireland only in the late 19th century.   

And now look at us. The “love-apple” is as much a staple as is the ordinary apple. For some of us — myself included — it is our very favourite fruit (technically it is a fruit, although it is classed as a vegetable).

One of the things that makes the tomato so appealing is its crazy range of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours. There are cherry kinds such as the sweet, amber-toned ‘Sungold’, plum varieties for sauce (‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Striped Roman’), great, meaty and rumpled beefsteaks for slicing (‘Brandywine’ and ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’), near-white tomatoes (‘Ivory Egg’ and ‘Banana Cream’), near-black, such as ‘Indigo Rose’, and every colour in between. The last, which looks like a shiny black billiard ball, was the product of a breeding programme at Oregon State University aiming to develop tomatoes with high amounts of purple anthocyanins — a natural antioxidant.

A selection of tomatoes grown at Brown Envelope seeds© Jane Powers

A selection of tomatoes grown at Brown Envelope Seeds by Madeline McKeever © Jane Powers

When you grow your own, you can delve into this thrilling diversity in a way that you’ll never experience with commercially-grown tomatoes. There are over ten thousand varieties, but only a handful — mainly red — are likely to turn up in the shops. For the insatiable home grower, however, there are hundreds of different kinds available as seed. If you grew ten new toms every year, you’d never manage to grow them all in one lifetime.

This wondrous multiplicity of tomato-kind was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I visited the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at Rolestown Garden Centre in north county Dublin. The event was the brainchild of Ireland’s “Tomato Queen”, Nicky Kyle, one of this country’s first organic gardeners. The day celebrated all things tomato, and especially the diversity of this delicious crop. A display of dozens of varieties was dazzling, each tomato full of colourful and cartoonish self-importance, and each wildly different. Most had been grown by Kyle, but some had been harvested by other committed tomato heads. The festival lasted two years, but it disappeared and the garden centre closed.

A few months ago, I was thinking about how sad it would be to lose such a joyous and worthy event, so I resolved to resurrect it. It was remarkably easy: you’d have to be an odd person not to be grateful for a day celebrating tomatoes. Nicky Kyle was on for it, and so too was the venue that I approached: Killruddery House and Garden in Bray, Co Wicklow. Killruddery’s food grower, Frank Jesper, has already pledged to raise several varieties, and a new polytunnel has been ordered for that very purpose. The Tomato Queen will grow some varieties, as will other tomato fans I’ve spoken to.

Tomato harvest1YT.jpg

If you are a tomato-fancier, I hope you will join in, and bring your best to Killruddery next September. The aim is to start building a community of tomato lovers throughout Ireland, a community that will increase in numbers and become more knowledgeable with each year of the festival.

Of prime interest are heirloom and open pollinated kinds. Heirlooms, as the name suggests, are older varieties pre-dating the commercialisation of seeds. They were handed down from grower to grower, and swapped amongst friends and neighbours. All heirlooms are open pollinated: they come true to type when you save seed and sow it the following year. Many were specific to certain areas or people. ‘Black Krim’, for example, was found in the Crimea around 1900, while ‘Cherokee Purple’ was supposed to have been grown by the native American tribe.

Some modern toms are open pollinated also, but most are F1 hybrids (first filial generation), the offspring of two separate varieties that must be crossed every time seed is required. The resulting cross combines desirable characteristics of each parent, but the seeds cannot be saved successfully, as the offspring will not resemble the cultivar. F1 hybrids are the domain of seed companies, which is fair enough, as they have gone to the trouble of crossing them each year. Most open pollinated and heirloom varieties, on the other hand, can saved by anyone. Because of this, they are more vulnerable to extinction. While seed companies do stock open pollinated and heirloom varieties, there is less financial incentive to keep them growing. As Nicky Kyle points out: “It’s so important to preserve all of them, all of their genetic diversity. We don’t know what we may face in the future in terms of disease or pests. So each one of them may hold the key to actually saving all of tomatoes in their genes.”

Therefore, if you love tomatoes, do grow something odd this year and bring it to the festival. Between us, we’ll grow as many different tomatoes as possible — the weirder and wonderfuller the better.

TTT logo

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival takes place on Sunday, September 4th at Killruddery. Tomato display, competitions (for adults and kids), talks, food, market.

Sligo firm Quickcrop is partnering with the festival to sell seed of heirloom kinds suitable for the Irish climate, as well as young plants . Order now to harvest your tomatoes in time. Cork-based Brown Envelope Seeds also has many open-pollinated varieties.

Visit the Totally Terrific Facebook page.

A version of this blog post appeared in the Sunday Times

Totally Terrific Tomatoes

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

 Basket of tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”

So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.

Tomato 'Latah' © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Latah’   © Jane Powers

The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.

Tomato 'Persimmon', grown by MIchael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Persimmon’, grown by MIchael Connolly
© Jane Powers

Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.

The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.

Tomato 'Black Sea Man', grown by Michael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Black Sea Man’, grown by Michael Connolly
© Jane Powers

When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”

Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.

“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky.  “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.

As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is  Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783

Tomato 'Ananas Noire' grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Ananas Noire’ grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

 Let’s talk tomatoes

Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.

Let’s go to Laois

Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.

An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times

He pulped my photography project

September 27, 2011 § 11 Comments

A couple of days ago I deposited a fine basket of freshly-harvested tomatoes on the kitchen table. “I think I’ll photograph those,” I thought, and wandered off to get my camera in a languid Sunday-morning kind of way. When I returned half an hour later the tomatoes were gone, and my husband — all business and efficiency — was sealing the lid on a mammoth container of gazpacho, and popping it into the fridge.

This tomato-filled basket is not the one in question, but is from the abundantly-tomatoed Glebe Gardens in West Cork.

So, I was going to write about tomato-growing here, and this year’s favourite varieties (‘Dzintare Lasite’ and ‘Black Cherry’). But now I think we need to talk about gazpacho.

'Dzintare Lasite' from Irish Seed Savers Association and 'Black Cherry' from Thompson & Morgan

Cold tomato soup. The idea is deeply unappetising, especially if you’ve been brought up on warm tomato soup — as many of us have. But, gazpacho, let me tell you, is a delightful thing. It tastes zingy and refreshing, with all the flavours and aromas of summer, but it fills you up in the most comforting way, like a winter stew. Although it is classic Spanish fare, its origins are Arabic, and its name means “soaked bread” (bread is the ingredient that makes it so filling). It is an ancient dish, and has traditionally filled the bellies of people across the Mediterranean. Hadrian’s Roman army had gazpacho among their rations.

A bowl of gazpacho (and some tomatoes that got away)

The best recipe I know — and the only one we use in the house — is from Rena Salaman’s Mediterranean Vegetable Cookery, which is no longer in print. It was published in 1987 by Collins. (A year later, it was one of the first presents I gave the man who would become my husband — and who would later purée my tomato photography project into gazpacho.)  I hope that Rena Salaman does not mind my repeating her instructions here. All her recipes work, and need no adjusting. They are perfect, straight off the page. (Because we’re a little lazy, we don’t peel the tomatoes. We often use quite a few yellow ones, so the soup is paler and less acidic than if made with red ones. We also add chilli.)

There is talk of an Indian summer in the UK and Ireland, and gazpacho is exactly the kind of food for those last-blast sunny days.

Rena Salaman’s Gazpacho (serves 4–6)
675g (1.5 lb) sweet, ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
Piece of cucumber, 9cm (3in) long, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large sweet pepper, green or red, cored, deseeded and coarsely chopped
110g (4oz) crustless bread soaked in water and squeezed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
425ml (15fl oz) cold water
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Mix the tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, sweet pepper and bread with half the water in a food processor or liquidiser, and liquidise in batches. With the machine still running, slowly add the olive oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and empty the soup into a large bowl. Slowly add the remaining water, stirring until it has all been incorporated. Cover and chill for 1–2 hours.

Tomatoes: 'Polen', 'Dzintare Lasite', 'Tangella' and 'Black Cherry'

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