Ripe for return: Tasteless tomatoes are a thing of the past
A whole generation reared on tasteless tomatoes can now enjoy the firm and flavoursome fruits their parents remember.
This week I bit into a taste of nostalgia to weep over. Here, in one five-second palate rush, was a flavour I'd missed so much in years as an expat and one I fell upon immediately on my return home, the perfect companion for the cheddar and granary bread for which I had also been deeply homesick.
That tart taste sensation, bursting with juice within its firm little shell, came from a creature now almost extinct on the greengrocer's shelf: the English outdoor tomato. Less viable commercially, these fruit struggle for survival, taking months to mature, and like the summer picnics of which they were once an essential element, worth waiting more than half a year for to enjoy in their prime.
These days, only those who grow their own, shop in Mediterranean street markets or farmers' markets or have a greengrocer who supplements hothouse supplies with intermittent outdoor crops during their short season can be sure of experiencing the irreplaceable taste of tomatoes past. Some young shoppers have given up on tomatoes present completely, it seems – "our biggest customers for tomatoes are 45-plus," says Sainsbury's – such is the bad rep of the tasteless hothouse specimens they grew up with.
A new generation, however, will never have to be dependent, as we all too recently were, on the great mechanised greenhouses of Holland and the Canaries, which still grow for uniform size and maximum yield and set robots to pick and pack their vapid fruits far too early. The ones Waitrose chief salad buyer Richard Bickerton calls "that round orange thing which is basically a ball of water".
Today's supermarkets are dominated by sweet little cherries and plums attracting newly grown-up tomatoholics – "with the introduction of new varieties like golden Pomodorino, we've seen younger customers coming into the category," says Sainsbury's – tart and juicy coeurs de boeuf and, for those lucky enough to live near the right stores, the stripey and ridged tomatoes of every colour including deep chocolate brown. And for the best part of the year, they are all being grown in Britain. M&S sources them from six counties, including Lancashire and Yorkshire, and Waitrose bags award-winning varieties from Cardiff and Cambridge, and both, like Sainsbury's, are customers of the biggest homegrown suppliers, on the Isle of Wight.
"What we produce is down to a dozen people with fantastic palates who, along with customers clamouring for innovation, are responsible for what comes off the vine three years from now," says Kieran Devine, product-development manager at Wight Salads Group, which produces most of Britain's newly tasty hothouse tomatoes.
Newly tasty because it can take three years for a new variety to get from successful trial into full-scale production. And because the idea of cultivating tomatoes that really taste of something was far from a universal concept before the millennium.
"We started as a marketing consortium for Isle of Wight growers who came to realise they had to innovate to survive," explains Wight marketing honcho Mark Hitchcock, who recalls that when he joined the cooperative in 2000 it was all about the dreaded "six-pack" of round, affordable toms still snapped up for sandwiches by those not driven primarily by their taste buds. "Apart from round, red tomatoes there were cherry tomatoes, and that was it until someone discovered you could leave them on the vine," says Hitchcock.
This revelation – and the revolution it took to drive it from the nursery to market – cannot be underestimated. Bickerton, who has been buying tomatoes for 26 years, remembers the day he returned from Holland with a bunch of vine tomatoes, and the reaction of a manager walking past the office where he worked as a Sainsbury's buyer: "'You're never going to sell those in my store!' he said – but now it is all about vine tomatoes," he reflects.
It is also all about taste, which is why Devine had such a hard time weeding through 150 applications for a dozen places on the taste panels he runs on the Isle of Wight, where samplers chomp their way through more than 40 tomatoes in a two-hour session to mark the finest differentiations.
"I eliminated smokers and the colour blind, then those who couldn't identify a string of scents including vanilla, peppermint, almonds and Lea & Perrins," he explains. "They also had to be able to distinguish sweet, sour and salty in a very diluted solution and have the power to detect very subtle differences between 14 of the same variety, which we submit to every panel.
These tomatoholics judge on 11 parameters: "Not just sweetness and acidity, but firmness of skin, brightness and depth of colour – and for that plain tomatoey-ness which is such an essential factor."
Stores then run their own taste tests on the hundreds of varieties submitted by growers: "A scientific scale has been developed to judge sweetness and acidity so we can assure flavour is just as good in winter," says Darren Lightburn, trading manager for salads at M&S, which led the long road back to tomatoes grown for flavour with the introduction of Gardener's Delight in the mid-Eighties.
All Wight's store customers are this year fielding in key branches boxes of multi-coloured, mixed-size "heritage" tomatoes for customers to buy loose in whatever combination they fancy. They look dramatic and enticing: "And our customers are constantly enticed by new lines," says Lightburn.
Bickerton, however, feels they are a visual enticement more than a taste sensation and even Devine backs off from some of the most intriguing: "I'm not crazy about this yellow plum or that green stripey one we grew for a customer," he says.
While many more dazzling hues and quirky shapes are in development, this year's best news for tomato-lovers lies not in trials of the super-sweet new miniature varieties, but a fresh and rather unlikely respect for the unfashionable ones of old. "There's nothing that quite replicates the taste an outdoor tomato," confesses Bickerton, who is planning to risk his shirt on some from Jersey. Prepare to eat them, even if a small mortgage is required, and weep.
WHAT'S GOOD TO EAT
Some are in supermarkets, some only in farmers' markets, where The Tomato Stall (also in Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays) maintains a permanent presence of Isle of Wight heritage varieties.
Kumato: Dark green to chocolate in appearance, this new firm-skinned variety developed in Sicily and now grown on a small scale in Britain is bursting with flavour, perfect sliced to munch with cheese.
Cherry on the vine: A totally different creature to the tasteless, mass-produced cherry tomatoes of old, this is now widely available, perfect for salads, lunchboxes and snacking. Piccolo is one of the best.
Green Tiger: Small, stripey, almost black tomato is brilliant roasted with olive oil and a little garlic, but not so good to eat raw.
Gold Santini: Little deep-yellow plum tomatoes much sweeter than the pale yellow cherry – beautiful mixed with their red cousins. M&S exclusive.
Marmande: Flat, ribby beef tomatoes, soft, sweet and juicy, carried by some Waitrose stores.
Coeur de boeuf: Pyramid-shaped, can be hollow and dry inside, but perfect for stuffing with couscous or tuna salad.
Jack Hawkins: Traditional red beef tomato, tasty sliced for sandwiches – a Waitrose exclusive..
And if you can find it.....
Marizol Gold is a huge yellow beef weighing more than half a pound.
Exquisite sliced and layered with diced monkfish and sliced, blanched potatoes, sprinkled with herbs, baked for 20 minutes and served with aioli.
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