The Fruits of the Vine

TomatoesDescribe the humble tomato as a love apple, pomo di mori, pomi d’oro, or pomo d’amori and it immediately conjures visions of beautiful fragrant, juicy fruits, Mediterranean skies and the mingling aromas of basil, garlic and fresh grassy olive oil. A far cry from the  perfectly engineered, orange globes manufactured in Dutch mega glasshouses.
The tomato was introduced by the Spaniards in the 16th century from South America, but outside Italy it was not widely eaten until much later. In his eponymous Herbal (published in 1597) Gerard described the Apple of Love as “chamfered, uneven and bunsped out in many places”,  “of ranke and stinking savour” and claimed “they yield very little nourishment to the bodie and the same naught and corrupt”. With typical English disdain he noted that Spaniards and Italians esteemed them a delicacy eaten “with pepper, salt and oyle.”
Originally grown as an ornamental plant, the fruits were thought to be poisonous and there was more interest in their alleged aphrodisiac properties than culinary merits. It is now one of the staples of the supermarket shopping basket and an invaluable member of the five-a-day cohort. However, after generations of commercial breeding we have succeeded in producing a perfectly formed, tasteless super food incapable of stirring the most ardent romeo.
We can now enjoy tomatoes all year round nurtured on a carefully controlled hydroponic diet in an artificial environment, with a long shelf-life and an enviable number of air miles, but somewhere along the way we lost the plot. The marketing men sought to seduce us with fruit on the vine, but all they sold us was the scent of the tomato foliage. However, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.
So what is the lovelorn romeo or epicurean to do? The best tomatoes are grown outdoors in southern Europe and most of the time just left to get on with it, although I suspect that any French gardener will tell you it’s all down to the terroir. Our climate is just not suitable for growing real tomatoes and by the time you get this far north, even under cover, it’s another attempt at climbing mount impossible. However it is worth all the nurturing, anxiety and stained fingers to grow something that not only looks like a tomato but tastes wonderful.
I have been trying to grow tomatoes for the last four years with varying degrees of success. For the first two years I produced beautiful green fruit and perfected my chutney recipe. Last year I harvested a respectable amount of ripe fruit from one of my four varieties, but was this just the result of an exceptionally good summer?
This year the Head Gardener and I did some careful analysis and decided a new approach was necessary. We came to the conclusion that because our soil is so very well-drained and alkaline all the liquid feed we applied drained away and any available potassium was made unavailable by the high pH of the soil. So we tried grow bags (organic and seaweed enriched) and although not the sunniest of years we managed to have a mini glut of ripe tomatoes. Although optimising the growing conditions is important, this far north the choice of variety is also critical. So far we have tried a dozen or so varieties and a small plum tomato (Lucciola) is the most successful: prolific with a very good sweet flavour. I’ve not manged to find a suitable variety of one of the larger tomatoes yet but there are plenty to try.
The vines are still producing, and we’re still picking enough to have fresh tomatoes every day and any spare are roasted with garlic and herbs and frozen. The small ones are frozen whole without pre-cooking and will add a wonderful splash of flavour to winter soups and casseroles. There will doubtless be enough for a few jars of chutney too. Soon it will be time to clear the vines and look forward to next year. As much as I love tomatoes, I have become accustomed to abstaining during the winter months and to anticipate the first home-grown fruits in July.

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14 thoughts on “The Fruits of the Vine

  1. ‘bunsped ‘ – such a lovely word…… Thanks for your tomato lesson, Christine – you have topped my brain cells up nicely. The little plum tomato ‘Sunbeam’ that we had this year were the first to start ripening and have been tasty, but all the tomatoes are so SLOW!

      • 😉 but what really puzzles me is why THIS year when we had the heatwave are they so slow to ripen, compared to last year? I did wonder yesterday, when picking the random ripe ones, whether there was too much tomato foliage in the greenhouse and that it was blocking the light….

      • It is a good think that home grown tomatoes taste so good as in terms of time and effort, pound per pound they are probably more expensive than gold. There are so many factors which affect ripening that its almost impossible to diagnose the problem. Variety and size of fruit, temperature, light, water and nutrient levels all have an effect. The Head Gardner certainly removes the leaves from the bottom up as the trusses form. Too much shade from the leaves could be the problem if the trusses are not ripening evenly. It is possible that it was too warm in your greenhouse this summer? Sorry, not a clue really, just some random suggestions.

      • I did not remove leaves last year, but this year grew them all in pots which meant the plants were growing right up to the ridge. I had begun taking lower leaves off but have seen pics of ALL leaves removed – is that what HG does?

      • Thank the HG for sharing his techniques; I have partially stripped all the vines and the greenhouse is certainly much lighter!

  2. I’m still searching for a reliable tomato variety – may have to give your recommendation a try next year. Tomatoes must be one of the most frustrating and time consuming crops to grow, but when things do go right, it really is worth all the effort!

    • Unfortunately I think it is a case of experimentation and it doesn’t help when our summers are so variable. We’re still eating the baby plum tommies and they are still as sweet as cherries.

  3. “perhaps we only have ourselves to blame” for the dutch water bulbs – so true!
    I find tomatoes hit and miss, I don’t think I’ve sorted the soil out either, and I’ve been experimenting with “early” to ripen varieties – some of the Russian ones seem ok so far….. still plenty in the greenhouse that are finally ripening, slowly but surely…….

    • I have a suspicion that it takes about 20 years to learn how to grow tomatoes. Not sure I’ve got that long but I’ll keep trying just for the pleasure of eating one that tastes like a tomato.

  4. I put any remaining green tomatoes in a dark cupboard and after a few days they go red 🙂 I’ve had a smaller crop this year than last year but I love my little sugar plum variety and won’t grow anything else ever, ever again! I made a big mistake trying some other varieties with it this year. Waste of time. Stick to the ones you enjoy and that give you the best crop 🙂 you can’t beat the taste of a really good home grown tomato.

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