Red alert: the glory of the great British tomato

Heavy rain has ruined Spain's crop, a staple of supermarket shelves. But don't despair – just buy home-grown

Meals served in the House of Commons are turning red this week. The lunch menu yesterday in the Terrace Café, which overlooks the Thames, included a soup of roasted plum tomatoes, butterbeans and chorizo. Today, the Debate Cafeteria will offer a menu of chilled gazpacho Andalouse, followed by leg of lamb steak with roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine.

This sudden colouring of cuisine at Westminster is not a subliminal political message from catering staff but a celebration of the British tomato. The fruits that will fuel the arguments of legislators have all been grown in the UK. This makes them comparative rarities in the UK market since four out of five tomatoes are imports. The bulk come from Spain, the Canaries and Holland.

After years of drooping sales, the UK 'tommy' has come out fighting. Homegrown tomatoes are said to be fresher, tastier and healthier than their continental rivals.

"What the industry here has done is create something that looks better and tastes different," says Gerry Hayman, the British Tomato Growers' Association spokesperson. "British growers had to distinguish their product. About half of UK tomatoes are sold still attached to the green branch. People think it's a bit of a con but it's good for tomato flavour. The only trouble is they require careful handling which forces up the price."

In financial terms, the British tomato constitutes a quarter of the £600m UK market. Since our population is now 60 million, the average UK spend on tomatoes is just £10 per year.

"It's very little compared with other countries," says Hayman. This amount would not buy very many of Marks & Spencer's new 'Super Sweetini' tomatoes, claimed to be "the best-tasting tomato of its size on the high street". They cost £2.29 for 220 grams (£4.70 a pound).

"When people say tomatoes don't taste like they used to, it's because four out of five are imported," claims Hayman, "When Spain joined the European Community, it invested a massive amount and developed long-life tomatoes that delayed the normal ripening process so they can survive the five-day journey from southern Spain. They look OK but are tough and tasteless."

At one time, the tomatoes from southern Europe had a big price advantage but this has vanished with rocketing labour costs. Additionally, unseasonably heavy rainfall has delayed this year's crop of Spanish tomatoes. According to The Grocer magazine, prices have already risen by 61 per cent.

According to Hayman, these big, bland imports are not as good for you. "A research project showed there was up to five times more lycopene – the red stuff in tomatoes that reduces the risk of long-term chronic illness including cancer and heart disease – in ripe British tomatoes compared to imports from Spain."

In my view, Spanish cherry tomatoes when sold on the vine can be excellent, though the standard-sized tomatoes from this country are often a watery disappointment, whether sold on the vine or not. Dutch tomatoes are even more insipid, though the comparatively rare Italian imports are usually excellent. Yet I've also had terrible, tasteless tomatoes in salads at Italian restaurants in London. They think we don't know any better – and they could be right.

Our ignorance of the tomato may be due to its relatively recent acceptance in Britain. A native of South America, the plant was long regarded with suspicion here because of its resemblance to deadly nightshade. In Flora Thompson's novel, Lark Rise to Candleford, a Victorian women voices her distrust of this alien arrival: "Don't 'ee go trying to eat it now. It'll only make 'ee sick... nasty horrid things."

Until the First World War, tomatoes were usually cooked in Britain. In the Fifties, when they became an essential part of the British salad along with floppy lettuce, the main variety grown was Moneymaker, a name that correctly implied masses of fruit – but at the expense of flavour.

Even today, culinary professionals are hesitant about British tomatoes. When I asked Jeremy Lee, acclaimed chef at London's Blue Print Café, about using the homegrown version, he replied: "I don't, unless they're roast to concentrate the flavour."

But Lindsay Bareham, author of The Big Red Book of Tomatoes (due to be republished in July) said, "I advocate Piccolo tomatoes grown on the Isle of Wight. I found some in the farmers' market in Cowes and they were absolutely bursting with flavour. When our home industry was going down the drain, the British Tomato Association was set up to redress the balance and they've succeeded. We grow fewer tomatoes but the quality is higher. For flavour, we can go British at last."

Typically three times sweeter than standard-sized tomatoes, the Piccolo is similar in size to the original tomatoes grown in South America. British growers are also raising small plum tomatoes like Santa and a smaller beefsteak tomato which is called Jack Hawkins. "Great for slicing," says Gerry Hayman. "They have the highest lycopene content."

Most UK commercial tomato growers keep the plants under glass so the sun and light will concentrate sweetness in the fruit. But I have a soft spot for outdoor tomatoes grown by smallholders that you occasionally find in farm shops and some small grocers. When eaten whole like an apple, the musky smell and bittersweet taste whizzes me back to the tomatoes grown by my grandfather.

"Everybody remembers their grandfather's tomatoes," agreed Lindsay Bareham. "We should be looking to grow our own. Outdoor tomatoes have a balance of sweetness and acidity. What I discovered is that tomatoes like to be treated mean. You get a better tomato if the plant has to struggle – the same applies to vines and figs. Not so much water but plenty of sun. Outdoor tomatoes are usually an autumn thing. The tomato is a fruit and it takes time to mature. If they're grown outside, they're at their peak in September."

Given the arid condition of this country, 2011 could be the year when the British tomato tastes success. I'm growing San Marzano, the legendary tomato of Naples. It is acknowledged to be the best sauce tomato in the world, although how it will fare away from the volcanically-enriched soil of its home town is anyone's guess.

Mark Hix's fried green tomatoes with hot soused mackerel

Serves 4

I was brought up on soused mackerel as a kid and I often put it on our menus now. While I was judging a young chef competition down at the Weymouth Food Festival last year, one of the contenders served up a delicious hot soused mackerel dish which inspired me to -create this dish. Unripened green tomatoes have so many possibilities, especially when they are pan-fried, deep-fried or chopped up in a salsa. If you grow your own tomatoes, then you are bound to get a good crop of green ones that struggle to ripen in our inconsistent British sunshine – or you can just decide to pick them when they are green.

Ingredients:

4 mackerel fillets weighing about 100-120g each, or 8 smaller ones, boned

1 medium carrot, peeled and thinly sliced on the angle

2 large shallots, cut into rings

12 black peppercorns

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 bay leaf

125ml white wine or cider vinegar

125ml water

2tsp sea salt

4 large green tomatoes, cut into 1cm-thick slices

A couple of tablespoons of vegetable or corn oil

Shredded parsley leaves (optional)

Method:

Put the carrots, shallots, peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaf, vinegar, sea salt and water in a non-reactive, wide saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Drop in the mackerel fillets and simmer gently for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.

Heat the vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan. Season the tomatoes and fry them on a high heat for a couple of minutes on each side, then remove from the pan and arrange in a line on warmed plates. Remove the mackerel from the cooking liquid and lay on the tomatoes with some of the carrots and shallots. Scatter with the parsley, if using; serve.

Tomato facts

80 per cent of the tomatoes consumed in Britain are imported.

3 times as many tomatoes are now produced per hour by British farmers than 25 years ago.

140 million tomatoes are grown each year (from 250,000 plants) in the UK's largest tomato glasshouse, Cornerways Nursery in Wissington, Norfolk, which extends over 18 hectares.

25,000 tonnes of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere in Britain every year by tomato cultivation.

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