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Tomatoes - A Summertime Staple

British Tomato Fortnight

If you’re a regular follower of Alive with Flavour and my blog, you will know that I love tomatoes! As you read this, we are slap bang in the middle of British Tomato Fortnight and so there seems no finer time to celebrate this savoury fruit, so versatile that it can be eaten like an apple, picked straight off the vine, but also added to the most warming of wintry dishes.

Buying British Tomatoes

Tomatoes evoke memories of summertime and foreign climes, of bruschetta for lunch, and caprese salad with delicious burrata and aromatic basil for supper with a cold, crisp glass of white wine. Tomatoes need warmth and dry conditions in order to thrive and although British summers are not always that predictable, there are some locations around these isles where tomato growth is flourishing.

I am a keen advocate of buying local produce and certainly buying British where you can over imports. Luckily, east Kent is home to literally row upon row of greenhouses that lovingly nurture tomato plants, many of whose fruit we find on our supermarket shelves: Thanet Earth has a greenhouse the size of 25 football pitches producing a whopping haul of 400 million tomatoes a year! I was lucky enough to see the rows of tomato greenhouses on a long walk through east Kent last year so can testify to the magnitude of the production – for a tomato lover like me, it looked like heaven!

Varieties of Tomato

The Isle of Wight is making a name for itself in tomato growth too thanks to the sunshine it enjoys, which is intensified by the rays’ reflection in the surrounding Channel waters. One variety of tomato which is being increasingly cultivated on the Isle of Wight is the heirloom or heritage tomato.

I say ‘cultivated’ but actually heirloom vegetables are tampered with very little. Heirloom doesn’t just describe tomatoes and can be used to describe any vegetable where the seeds are passed down from season to season. Growers can choose to continue with the seeds which bear the tastiest, juiciest or whatever attribute is appealing to consumers, fruit or vegetable. The resulting plants are left to nature to open-pollinate - less GM and more TLC involved.

Heirloom tomatoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, colours and tastes and are much less hardy than other tomatoes. Transportation costs are heftier to protect the soft skin which, combined with their relative exclusivity (they are produced aplenty but not mass produced), are then passed onto the consumer making them more expensive. As with so many things in life, I would recommend you consider ‘quality over quantity’ when purchasing!

Julie Friend, local Masterchef winner and friend of Alive with Flavour shared her thoughts with me on heirloom tomatoes and supports the view that quality, tasty tomatoes require very little work to create a fantastic summer dish.

Over the years, producers have had to cope with the consumers’ demand for goods which were naturally out of season and thus they ramped up yield, forcing growth but often losing flavour. The Heirloom tomatoes are older varieties, a mix of different shapes, size and colour, which have not only that perfect flavour you yearn for, but the aroma you remember from being a child or on a sun drenched holiday in the Mediterranean. We chefs love them, as they not only need very little doing to them to create a delicious dish, but the colours give us the aesthetics we want when plating.”

If you’d like to buy heirloom or heritage tomatoes (the terms can be used interchangeably), I’d recommend sourcing them from your local Farmers’ Market or farm shop where hopefully you can ‘try before you buy’. I appreciate that market shopping may be tricky at the moment in lockdown but Edenbridge Market has started up again (every Thursday morning) and many farm shops have remained open, abiding by government guidelines.

Growing Your Own Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the easiest fruits to grow at home and don’t require much space. You just need a grow-bag and a sunny, hopefully dry, spot and some patience! Tomatoes stop ripening as soon as they are picked so it’s best to leave them on the vine for as long as possible – don’t be tempted to take them too soon! (They are irresistible though so I wouldn’t blame you if you did!).

Here’s a quick run down of varieties that you may want to consider and within each variety there will be different varieties too so you can try a different one each summer or several plants one summer to work out your favourite!

  • Cherry tomatoes are great for roasting (on the vine) and ideal for snacking (my daughters pick these off the vine and eat them straight away such is their sweetness!). Thanet East recommends the Piccolo variety as it delivers, “the best flavour every time, perfect balance of sugar/acid ratio. It has an intense tomato flavour and aroma,” or the yellow Summersun variety which is sweet. The cocktail size is very juicy and great in salads or sauces.

  • All the plum varieties are great for recipes because they have a firmer texture – they’re also great on a BBQ as they don’t fall off the skewer! Thanet East recommends Delisher for its “sweet taste and texture,” or Sweetelle for its “perfect synergy of sweetness, bite and bursting with flavour.”

  • Classic round tomatoes can be used for soups, sauces, salads and sandwiches. These are your archetypal tomato which you will even find as an emoji!

  • Beef tomatoes are great for stuffing.

Tomatoes are packed full of vitamins and minerals and are known to help boost heart health amongst other things. I think their medicinal quality is in carrying you off to a Mediterranean holiday just through their smell or taste, which could be handy for us all this summer.

So, what are you waiting for?! Be inspired by British Tomato Fortnight - plant your own, buy British tomatoes at the supermarket or if you can, hunt out some heirloom tomatoes at your favourite farm shop. A summer salad or BBQ is simply incomplete without.

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