BY GARETH MAY
When I was kid, I hated tomatoes. That tough, bouncy ball exterior yielding to a bite and revealing its lie within—a sickening wave of seedy gunk. Yuck. The classic conundrum followed: What is it? Vegetable? Fruit? Devilish enigma plucked from Satan’s greenhouse? … and then I ate a roasted one drizzled with olive oil on a slice of sourdough, and I dropped to my knees in contrition. Is this a gift from the heavens? I asked. Nay. It was a punnet from the Isle of Wight delivered by my Auntie Marge.
As ignorant as we are, most Brits will say the tastiest tomatoes are from the Med. Ironically, it’s actually Britain pushing the boundaries of tomato production.
The Isle of Wight is home to the sweetest tomatoes you’ve ever tasted. At least that’s the claim made by The Tomato Stall, the island’s high-tech, eco-friendly tomato farm which pumps out 320,000 kilograms a week in the summer months and feeds over 50 percent of all UK mouths hungry for organic tomatoes.
Joni Rhodes, spokesperson for The Tomato Stall, tells me that the natural habitat of the isle is largely responsible, as its geographical location ensures the tomatoes enjoy up to 20 percent more sunshine than any other area in the UK. “The Isle of Wight provides a unique maritime climate giving cooler summers, warmer winters, and higher sunshine hours than much of the rest of the United Kingdom,” she says. “The benefit of more natural light is important because it increases the photosynthesis process allowing the plant to develop greater levels of sugar so that they taste sweeter.”
But how do we explain that sweetness?
I turn to tomato super nerd Craig LeHoullier, American author of Epic Tomatoes and avid blogger. Exactly how important is photosynthesis to a tomato’s flavour and why does sugar have such an important part to play in the making of a good tasting tom? “There is no doubt that intensity and duration of sunlight makes tomatoes happiest, in terms of flavour,” LeHoullier says. “One observation that convinces me of the relevance of photosynthesis on tomato flavour is the consideration of determinate varieties in comparison with indeterminate varieties.”
This distinction is important. According to LeHoullier, determinates such as Taxi and Roma have incredibly high fruit production compared to their foliage or leaf cover. They also have what he calls a “genetic lust” for setting loads of fruit. Determinates have less leaf area—hence potential photosynthesis—per fruit, and in general are blander, less intense, and less favoured for eating when compared indeterminate tomatoes such as Piccolo, San Marzano, and Kumato—all of which are grown on the Isle of Wight.For me, the perfect tomato attacks my mouth with intense flavour that screams ‘TOMATO.’ There are subtleties, complexities, and depth beyond just simple tomato flavour. LeHoullier also says the relationship between acid and sugar is another key factor in a delicious tomato.
“Essentially all tomatoes have equivalent acidity. Sugar levels, however, vary widely and it is the interplay between sugar and acid—the relative levels, the balance—when combined with other tomato components that define the total flavour,” he says. “Most people seem to love an intense tomato with acid and sugar in good balance. Hence the relevance of the sugar levels in tomatoes of high quality and flavour.”
It’s not the sun and sugar alone that make these tomatoes so special. The Tomato Stall also harnesses other elements—irrigating their crop with harvested rainwater “We have the capacity to store up to 100 million litres (the equivalent of 600, four-person, household’s average use of water a year) of rainwater in our reservoirs,” Rhodes says. “This helps us to reduce the amount of water we use and reduce waste [as well].”
It also helps to boost the fruit’s flavour as our guru explains. “Water in general is critical to tomatoes, because tomatoes—the fruit itself—is mostly water,” LeHoullier says. “Certainly, micronutrients in rain water will help to make a healthy plant.”
Photo courtesy The Tomato Stall.
As well as the use of the island’s natural gifts, The Tomato Stall has also worked hard to engineer a manmade but au natural environment. For instance, natural predators control the plant pests, rather than pesticides and pollination is achieved with UK-native bumblebees.
“Inside our greenhouses our unique integrated composting facility here on our nursery enables us to use all of the plant waste, together with any paper and cardboard waste, to form healthy compost that we use to grow our organic tomatoes,” Rhodes says. “This not only allows us to produce the best quality organic tomatoes but reduces food miles in the transportation of compost.”
The impact of compost on the tomatoes, especially with such a high rate of production, cannot be underestimated.
“The best tomatoes are grown from healthy soil where all nutrients needed by the plant—nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous—along with many minerals at the micronutrient level are easily available to the plant,” LeHoullier says. “Good quality compost is an excellent way to ensure that a tomato plant gets exactly what it needs.”
Additionally, the farm trials over 300 new varieties each year (more than anywhere else in Europe) and the growers rigorously test them with an independent taste panel to select the best varieties. As yet however, they haven’t cracked the Jesus strand. All in all, The Tomato Stall’s combination of natural environment and grower ambition, that perfect blend of human and habitat, has led to awesome tomatoes. But what makes the best tomato according to the man who’s worked his way through 2000 varieties in 30 years of growing? “For me, the perfect tomato attacks my mouth with intense flavour that screams ‘TOMATO,’” LeHoullier says. “There are subtleties, complexities, and depth beyond just simple tomato flavour. It is important to combine excellent conditions with excellent specific varieties that are geared to your individual preferences and taste buds. Do that and you can be one elated tomato lover!”