An ode to homegrown tomatoes

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Jane Powers uncovers the delicious diversity of the sometimes-sweet, sometimes-meaty flavours of the tomato ahead of The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in the National Botanic Gardens this August 18 to September 3.

Taste in tomatoes is personal. Some people prefer them perky and sweet, such as ‘Gardener’s Delight’, while others seek out those with more smoky, resonant tones and a meaty texture – ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ and ‘Pantano Romanesco’ are two gorgeous, fleshy beefsteaks with rich baritone notes. My own favourites include ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ (a dark, sweet and meaty kind from Russia) and ‘Dzintara Lasite’ from Latvia – a yellow pear with a hint of smokiness.

In a recent study at the University of Florida, run by Dr Harry Klee, 398 varieties were tasted and rated for flavour. The team used gas chromatography to identify the odour molecules that contribute to flavourful tomatoes, and then isolated the gene variants (known as alleles) that determine the amounts of these molecules. They discovered that modern varieties have inferior alleles, with fewer flavour molecules, and heirloom varieties (those that predate breeding for mass production) had superior alleles and better flavour. And so, members are crossing heirlooms with commercial varieties to introduce flavour back into modern tomatoes. 

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Flavour in crops varies and is governed by growing conditions, location and weather. What tastes good in one garden may be bland in another. In my experience, the tastiest toms are grown in soil with added garden compost, in a sunny glasshouse or tunnel, and they are not overfed or over-watered.

Bush varieties (sometimes labelled as determinate) are tidier when grown in large containers. Some growers recommend removing loads of leaves to let the sun and air get at the ripening fruits. This is not a good idea, as the foliage feeds the plants and manufactures flavours. Instead, just cut off the leaves below the lowest truss of fruit to allow air around the plant. 

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In our usually iffy Irish summers, tomatoes with a shorter growing season are more likely to ripen reliably. Flavourful fast-growers include ‘Blush’ (red and gold striped, elongated cherry), ‘Latah’ (red bush kind bred in Idaho; either round or irregularly rumpled), ‘Stupice’ (Czech variety with medium-sized red fruits) and ‘Tigerella’ (British-bred, orange and red striped round tom). Cherry tomatoes such as ‘Tumbler’, ‘Sweet ’n’ Neat’ and ‘Balconi Red’ will grow in large pots in a sunny spot outdoors. 

Organic gardener and writer Nicky Kyle grows countless varieties of tomatoes in her north Co Dublin polytunnels and publishes an annual tomato report on her blog. It is an invaluable resource for anyone.

A Tomato Celebration

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If there is one fruit that deserves a festival all of its own, it’s the tomato. There are over 5,000 named varieties, a testament to the marvellous diversity in a single species. There are tomatoes in every shape, size and colour, from tiny red and gold cherries to portly purple and brown beefsteaks. There are waxy, pale toms too (‘White Wonder’), and a new strain of near-black kinds, including ‘Indigo Rose’, bred at Oregon State University as part of a programme to develop tomatoes with high amounts of purple anthocyanins, a natural antioxidant. 

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival, which has moved from Killruddery estate to the National Botanic Gardens for its third iteration, salutes all things tomato. There will be talks, competitions (including one for the ugliest tomato) and a tomato-themed market. The central focus will be a celebration of the genetic diversity of this loveliest of fruits. Last year, growers from all over Ireland came together to show 138 different varieties in a gleaming, multicoloured display. Weather permitting, there will be even more this year. The festival’s founder, Nicky Kyle, stresses the importance of preserving all tomato varieties: “With climate change we have no idea what we may be facing in the future, so it’s important to save as much genetic material in food crops as is possible — not just in tomatoes.” 

Dr Matthew Jebb, an ardent supporter of the festival, has pointed out that the human race eats half its weight in tomatoes every year. If that’s not a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.


PHOTOGRAPHY Johnathan Hession  WORDS Jane Powers

Lauren Heskin