Tomato support
An unusual tomato support, at Hampton Court Palace

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We don’t really eat fresh tomatoes in this house, and as a rule I don’t tend to grow them. Last year I was tempted by a trio of unusual flavoured tomatoes from Wyevale, but they were tall and needy things that wanted constant watering. I didn’t notice any significant difference between the flavours of the ones we did eat; I gave most of the fruit away. When I had a juicer I would grow cherry tomatoes and make tomato juice; the chickens loved the leftover pulp. (And yes, if you juice yellow tomatoes you get yellow tomato juice.)


Yellow tomato juice

I prefer determinate varieties, for which you don’t have to faff about with the endless side-shoot removal. I once grew a pair of indeterminate tomatoes for a Garden Organic trial. They rapidly took over the greenhouse, it was a jungle. I will stick to well-behaved, bite-sized tomatoes when I grow them in future.

However, I am clearly in the minority in my tomato views, because people all over the world grow them, and eat them by the kilo. Here in the UK there are plenty of gardeners who grow no fruits or vegetables other than tomatoes, often in grow bags on the patio. They’re a symbol of summer. That, and my general interest in edible plants, means I was intrigued by the newsletter I got from Seeds of Italy this morning, explaining the regional tomato varieties grown in Italy:

  • Tomato Principe Borghese da Appendere, from Puglia. This variety grows fruits that are larger than a cherry tomato and smaller than a salad tom. At 90–100g they’re about the size of an egg. An indeterminate variety that can be grown in a greenhouse or outdoors, it’s the one used for sun-dried tomatoes. Lovely fresh in salads, you can also pick them pink and hang in an airy, dark place to eat over winter.
  • >Beef Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino, from Florence. An heirloom indeterminate variety that forms semi-flat, misshapen and scalloped fruits. Performs better under glass, but will grow outside in the warmest UK regions. Its fruits are great for salads, and for stuffing, weighing in at 150–180 g, preferably for growing under glass, and this variety is an RHS Award of Garden Merit winner.
  • Semi Plum Tomato Roma, from Rome. A well-known variety that is meaty enough for cooking. A determinate variety happy to grow outside, it produces fruits 70–80g in weight that are ideal for eating fresh, for freezing (for later use in cooking), and for making sauces, soups and passata.
  • Plum Tomato San Marzano, from Naples. Not a tomato for eating fresh (perhaps I should grow it! 🙂 ), but as it combines a very dry and meaty texture with a thin skin and few seeds, it’s one of the best cooking tomatoes the world has to offer. An indeterminate variety that can be grown outside, it produces fruits of 70–80 g that are suitable for freezing whole, cutting raw for pizza toppings, for making tomato sauces, soups and passata, and for all dishes using cooked tomatoes.
  • Plum Tomato San Marzano Redorta, another one from Naples. Another good all-rounder, producing truncheon-sized giant plum tomatoes (about 350g each) that can be eaten raw or cooked. They’re full of juice, but this indeterminate variety if best grown under cover.
  • Beef Tomato Red Pear Franchi, from Bergamo. An ideal stuffing tomato, robust and in the shape of a lightly scalloped fat pear. Meaty with few seeds and plenty of juice, fruits weigh about 220–230g. The fruits from this indeterminate tomato are usually always completely green, or just turning pinkish, and stored.

And that’s just a small fraction of the tomato varieties Seeds of Italy have on offer, and they’re just one supplier (with whom I have no commercial relationship, in case you’re wondering!). The same newsletter does point out that they’re quite high up on Ethical Consumer’s score card for seed companies. (Top of the list is Stormy Hall Seeds, a company I’d never heard of, but which has recently entered into a collaboration with the Seed Co-Operative.)

A quick Google suggests that tomatoes in Italy are vulnerable to late blight disease, as they are in the UK. They’re not magically protected by the climate or anything. Here in the UK, blight is most likely to strike during Smith periods, which are warm and humid. Blight is one of those things that is almost unavoidable, and can reduce tomato plants to mush in a matter of days.

Organic gardeners can (a) grow their tomatoes under cover and keep the leaves dry, so spores have more trouble germinating, (b) grow early varieties that harvested before the main blight season in late summer (I’ve grown Sub Arctic Plenty in the past) or (c) choose blight-resistant varieties, such as Sutton’s Crimson Crush. It’s not a variety with an Italian heritage (it has transatlantic parents), but if you can’t stand the idea of a summer without a homegrown tomato, it may be the best bet (and this year it’s available as a Salad, Cherry or Beefsteak tomato).

So, as many of you are no doubt tomato lovers, you can now all band together to tell me what I’m missing and which varieties you’re growing this year!

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