The 'strawmato': equally good in a salad - or with a little chocolate

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The Independent Online

FIt is a fruit, looks like a strawberry, tastes sweet and you can, apparently, dip it into melted chocolate. But it is, actually, a tomato.

FIt is a fruit, looks like a strawberry, tastes sweet and you can, apparently, dip it into melted chocolate. But it is, actually, a tomato.

Inevitably dubbed the "strawmato", this new hybrid is expected to be on the shelf at a Marks & Spencer near you sometime next year as part of a new wave of "designer tomatoes" designed to tempt the palates of jaded consumers.

Also due to be sold by Marks & Spencer later this year will be green and red striped, "zebra" tomatoes and the misshapen, green, so-called "ugly" tomato from southern Spain - which its growers claim are the sweetest of all.

These days, less than half of the tomatoes grown in this country are the traditional, round, medium-sized varieties that have adorned the salad bowl since time immemorial. New types and varieties such as plum, cherry or yellow tomatoes now dominate both the growers and supermarket shelves.

Peter Ireland, M&S's fruit buyer, said: "People are getting more adventurous and want to try different varieties of tomato. They want tomatoes which look unusual and exciting to put in the salad bowl. The strawberry tomato looks fantastic and it also has a great taste - it can be eaten on its own or in salad."

It remains to be seen whether consumers will take to the small, sweet tomatoes: visitors to a gathering of the tomato trade in Sicily last week were offered them dipped in melted chocolate.

Bernard Sparkes, development executive with Melrow Salads, the Lancashire-based company that has bred the new tomato, said the new breed may take a little while to get into the shops: "We are not letting it out until we are quite satisfied. We expect it to be on the shelves within a year, but it might be two years. And I think we will be calling it the strawmato.''

Mr Sparkes, who was involved in the introduction of the cherry tomato into Britain by M&S more than 20 years ago, said he was "equally excited" by the other tomatoes. "I think they will knock the socks off consumers."

The "zebra", grown from a new seed variety, would be best for roasting or grilling, he said, while the "ugly" was a traditional Spanish tomato, normally sliced on to, or rubbed into, bread and served with olive oil and salt. "It's been around for a long while, but we just haven't been able to find a good source of supplier."

While Spain and Italy have long been considered by gourmets to be the home of the best tomatoes, Gerry Hayman of the British Tomato Growers Association maintained that domestically produced ones could now stand comparison on flavour, even though they only account for about a third of the 400,000 tons eaten in Britain each year.

"The market has changed dramatically over the past five years, with the introduction of plum and vine tomatoes, and this move reflects the fact that retailers are always looking for that little bit extra to tempt consumers," Mr Hayman said.

"Marks & Spencer cannot compete on price with the larger supermarkets, so they have to try and go one better. Although there are traditional varieties which do look strawberry shaped, the problem has been that the yield is fairly low and they are not so resistant to pests, which do not make them economically viable," Mr Hayman added.

"That's why they are looking for new types. I'm not sure that I want to try these new ones with chocolate though - it's a bit of an acquired taste."