What's gone wrong with our tomatoes?

They're incredibly easy to grow and at their most delicious fresh from the plant. So why do we buy unripe, flavourless tomatoes that have been sourced in unsavoury ways? Guy Adams gets to the root of the problem
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The problem began with the Elizabethans – Sir Francis Drake, to be precise. It was his decision, sometime around 1580, to introduce London to a New World vegetable known as the "potato", that condemned British dinner tables to centuries of functional starchiness.

If he'd only had the foresight of Spain's Hernan Cortez who, in roughly the same era, was importing an exotic South American fruit known as the "Peruvian apple" or "tomato", things might be different: we could have joined our Mediterranean neighbours in creating one of the world's great regional cuisines. But Britain went the way of the spud. Since then, we've never really "got" tomatoes. For most of the 430 years since Drake crossed the Atlantic, our attitude to this most alluring fruit has verged on the disrespectful.

Writing in Shakespeare's time, the herbalist John Gerard dubbed them "of ranke and stinking savour" and claimed "they yield very little nourishment to the bodie and the same naught and corrupt". During the 17th century, "Tommies" were confused with poisonous deadly nightshade. Georgians experimented with them as an aphrodisiac, rather than food.

Victorians believed they would cause illness unless boiled to the point of collapse. The 20th century finally cemented the tomato in Britain's national diet, since they were a particularly valuable source of vitamin C during the war. Today, they have belatedly become a staple, with the fresh domestic market worth more than £600m each year. And yet we still don't give them proper respect. We smear tomato, in ketchup form, over almost everything. We dump tins of the stewed variety in curries or "spag bol".

But the raw tomato, a centrepiece of French, Spanish and Italian cuisine, is regarded widely as a vaguely-pointless afterthought; something to add colour to salad, or to become the inoffensive "T" in a "BLT".

The average "bought" tomato is therefore a depressing specimen: perfectly round, uniformly red, full of water and, almost without exception, utterly devoid of taste. In consumer survey after consumer survey, these mass-produced fruits rate among the most disappointing contents of our shopping bags. To managers of modern supermarkets, the tomato has been reduced to a lifeless commodity for leveraging profits from time-poor loyalty-card holders who want their "five-a-day".

Corporations care about four things: size, weight, same-ness and colour; never taste. They consider flavour an irrelevance. Away from the produce section, problems with store tomatoes don't just end in their general insipidity. The food miles clocked-up to satisfy our demand for year-round, identical fruit are destroying the planet. Chemicals used to produce ever-increasing yields are making people sick. And not far from the port where Hernan Cortez first came ashore with his "Peruvian apple", Spanish tomato growers who nowadays ship 174,000 tonnes of their crop to the UK each year, are financing a 21st century version of the slave trade. When I eat a bad tomato, I feel robbed.

So should you. A properly-grown, raw fruit, served as nature intended (and by that, I mean fresh off a vine and preferably still warm from the sun) is one of life's great pleasures. It marries sweetness and acidity better than any fresh fruit on earth and distills the essence of summer into a single mouthful. Real tomatoes are varied in colour and irregular in shape. The best sometimes look downright ugly. Often, they are also hopelessly fragile.

The Gardener's Delights that I picked this morning exploded on impact with my mouth and could only be consumed by slurping. In chemical terms, a tomato's taste is peculiarly complex. The gooey portion of the fruit, known as locular jelly, contains most of its sharpness, which comes from malic and citric acid. The fructose, which provides equally-important sweetness, is spread throughout the flesh. A further 15 or 20 different chemicals contribute to overall flavour. The taste of banana or strawberry, by contrast, comes from just one or two chemicals, which is perhaps why you can buy banana and strawberry sweets, but not tomato-flavoured ones.

The taste of a tomato is also easily ruined. Chill a tomato below about 50 degrees fahrenheit and in just minutes you will start to degrade the most fragrant, volatile and important chemicals which provide its taste. After 24 hours – the period over which an unscrupulous shipper seeking to lengthen their cargo's lifespan might transport tomato inside a refrigerated truck – it will have lost roughly half its intensity. A few days inside a household refrigerator, where the vast majority of Brits ignorantly store their fruit, will leave it tasting of almost nothing.

To experience the epicurean delight of a true tomato, there are two roads to go down. The first involves throwing money at the problem.

There are some top-end British restaurants, largely in London, where if you are prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege, you might experience a dish which will redefine your understanding of the red fruit. I once spent more than £200 on a dinner at Locanda Locatelli, which was dominated entirely by the succulent cherry tomatoes in a five quid pomodorini e rucola side salad. A tomato-based sorbet served at one of Gordon Ramsay's places a few years ago still conjours up happy memories. But the easiest path to tomato heaven is to grow your own.

Each year, in a glorious three month season which (depending on the weather) hits its stride shortly after Wimbledon, Britain's gardens and greenhouses produce a crop so plentiful that amateur producers are forced into a frenzy of chutney-making and soup-freezing. Right about now, tomato obsessives can be recognised by their pollen-stained fingers and a vocabulary laden with technical terms such as "piccolo", "heirloom", "armpit hair" and the dreaded "blight".

The dirty secret of tomato growing is that it's really, really easy. In California, my current home (I work as this newspaper's LA correspondent) they grow like weeds. But in a good, sunny British summer they can also be pretty prolific. Anyone with a patch of garden or a balcony which gets daytime light can cultivate hardy varieties in soil, grow-bags, pots or even hanging baskets. With a greenhouse, you enter the big leagues.

A packet of seeds, bought for a couple of pounds, is capable, in proper conditions, of producing a crop worth fifty or even a hundred quid. The Royal Horticultural Society recommends planting indoors in spring, using a breed appropriate for your garden (best chosen from the list of 50-odd varieties granted its "Award of Garden Merit"). Once the last frost has passed and your vine is a couple of feet tall, you transfer outside. Plants should be watered little and often, supported with string or canes (or a Heath Robinson-style combination of both). In a couple of weeks, yellow flowers start to appear. Once pollinated, each flower becomes a tomato.

Fruit should only be picked when you are ready to eat it. For the best-tasting crops, throw in regular doses of potassium-rich fertiliser.

Helen Bostock, a horticultural advisor for the RHS, recommends a robust variety known as Tornado tomatoes for outdoor growers, which grow on bushy (or "determinate") vines. Indoors, her current favourites are Sungold, which grow on longer ("indeterminate") vines, and Super Marmande, which she endorses for well-thought-out financial reasons: "I grow them because they have large fruits and the beefsteak ones in stores are just SO expensive." But, she also encourages clients to experiment with the endless varieties sold at every garden centre. "One of the really super things about growing your own is that you have an almost endless choice."

Tomatoes don't demand attention. But they do benefit from it. At this time of year, I spend probably 30 minutes a day with my vines, picking out their side-shoots (or "armpit hairs") so as to concentrate the plant's attention on fruit production. Maybe that's overdoing it: the plant is so robust that you'll often see them sprouting from the surface of raw sewage at treatment facilities. These plants are the offspring of seeds which once passed through the human body. I guess their fruit should be avoided.

The delicious intensity of a homegrown tomato and the dreariness of the commercial variety, meanwhile, raises an immediate and obvious question: why can't professional growers produce a fruit to rival amateurs? Why does the average supermarket tomato smell of absolutely nothing? Even the supposed "high end" retailers usually fall short. Ocado is currently selling a pack of four "vine tomatoes" for a princely £1.69. On its website, customers rate eating them, on average, as a "two star" experience (out of a possible five). A typical online review contends that they're: "the epitome of the worst sort of tomato – beautiful-looking, but totally tasteless. Basically big bags of water".

The answer, or at least a good portion of it, is detailed in the important new book Tomatoland, by the US food writer and tomato authority Barry Estabrook. Focusing on production in Florida, which supplies most of the East Coast of America's winter crop, he explains how the tomato's basic biology makes it inherently unsuitable for commercial production. The plant's wild ancestors may still grow in parts of Chile, Peru and Ecuador (vines can survive the Atacama Desert, one of the most hostile places on earth), but while their leafy vine is tough and durable, its bright red fruit is quite the reverse. Indeed, when a ripe tomato is ready for eating, it is often so fragile as to be impossible to handle without causing damage. For the home-grower, fragility is no problem: you are likely to eat the tomato within hours of picking it. For a commercial producer it is, however, a disaster. To arrive on a supermarket shelf, a tomato must survive roughly a week of picking, packing and shipping. For this to happen without the fruit bruising or starting to decompose, it must therefore be picked when hard and under-ripe.

In the US, every store-bought "Tommie" is therefore removed from its vine when it is still bright green and "reddened" artificially, by leaving it for 24 hours in a room full of ethylene gas.

In the EU, where ethylene is frowned-upon, tomatoes are picked later in their life cycle and allowed to ripen during transit.

Standard commercial tomatoes are therefore never allowed to become properly ripe. The form in which they are sold is equivalent to that of a green banana. Little wonder that they taste of nothing. Rather than fighting blandness, growers have concentrated on increasing profits. Since the 1970s, the average tomato has tripled in size, diluting the existing flavour over an even greater expanse of flesh, while yields per hectare doubled during the 1980s and 1990s. Every technical innovation has been designed to oil the wheels of production, rather than improving flavour. Scientists have, for example, developed new varieties with ever thicker skins.

If that isn't enough to spoil your next shopping trip, then consider this: the big tomato industry is also facing allegations of horrific human rights abuses. Florida has recently seen two principal varieties of scandal wend their way through its courts. One involves poorly-paid tomato pickers who have been killed, maimed and disabled when chemicals such as methyl bromide have been sprayed illegally, while employees are still in the fields. The other revolves around unscrupulous gangmasters found keeping illegal immigrants under lock and key, forcing them to surrender the lion's share of the wages they earn from casual tomato work. In Tomatoland, Estabrook quotes Douglas Molloy, a US attorney from Florida, describing the town of Immokalee, in the heart of tomato country as "ground zero for modern-day slavery". Molloy adds that anyone who has eaten a tomato sold in a supermarket or fast food salad anywhere in America during the months of winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. "That's not an assumption," he says. "That is a fact."

It would be comforting to say that there is no place anything like that in enlightened Europe. But it would also be wrong. Starting in October, when local tomatoes disappear from our shelves, the biggest source of British supermarket tomatoes is southern Spain; specifically the province of Almeria, on the Costa del Sol. Here, a few miles from beaches familiar to package tourists, are mile after mile of ramshackle plastic poly-tunnel devoted to producing cheap fruit. Of the roughly 110,000 people who work there, between 80-90,000 are foreign, from places such as Morocco, Western Africa and Romania. And up to half of them are thought to be there illegally. When a Spanish farmer needs cheap labour, he doesn't check a worker's papers and add him to the payroll, he usually pays cash. As little as possible. Most of the migrant workers in Almeria earn under the minimum wage and many toil in conditions which suggest slavery.

The campaign group Anti Slavery International publishes a checklist of nine "indicators" which suggest that a workforce is being subjected to forced labour. They include "forced overtime", "not being paid" and "threat of denunciation to authorities". Parts of the £2bn-a-year Almeria tomato industry, which keeps Western Europe in winter fruit, appear to tick all nine boxes.

If you prefer your shop-bought tomatoes to be slavery free (and to actually taste of something) here's what to do.

Firstly, if you buy a tomato which tastes insipid, complain. Take it back to the supermarket, seek out the customer service desk and tell them. Secondly, buy British. There are roughly 50 commercial UK growers, who provide a mere 18 per cent of our supply.

Their fruit is picked by legal workers. And it gets to supermarkets quicker than imported rivals. Perhaps because of this fact, British tomatoes consistently outperform overseas rivals in blind taste tests.

The second thing to do is wait. In a select few laboratories, scientists are breeding tomatoes in hope of finding the holy grail of tomatoes: a fruit that can be industrially produced and also taste nice.

In Florida, Estabrook has discovered a university researcher called Harry Klee working to crack a chemical code that will help him breed the perfect tomato.

"Having met him, I'd say he's about five years off," says Estabrook. Four centuries after Cortez first brought the red fruit to Europe, I'd say it's about time, too.

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