Friday 3 September 2010

Some thoughts on tomatoes

I found the first couple of dark blight blotches on tomato stems yesterday evening, so cut off the stem immediately, removed the three tomatoes attached to it (one just turning orange, two still very green) and cut out also any leaves showing any sign of discolouration at all. Having looked over all the other tomato plants, it really does seem that only one plant was affected.

It's typical, isn't it? Having lost entire tomato crops at my allotment to blight for the last three years, I decided not to grow tomatoes on the plot at all, but to squeeze them into my small back garden. The results have been mixed: the early Red Alerts have been good (if only I liked the flavour better); the Sungolds are just coming into their prime now. Everything else has been a bit sulky and unwilling to ripen - and for the first year ever, I've had caterpillar damage. Interestingly, the variety affected by the caterpillars is Super Marmande, which is also the variety affected by the blight. Coincidence?

Up at the allotment, however, everyone is enjoying the first blight-free year in ages. As I go down the path to my own plot, I pass bed after bed of green-gold plants weighed down with ripe red fruits.

Next year, I think I might pass on the Red Alerts and Glaciers and concentrate the Sungolds that everyone likes to eat, plus the Marmandes and heritage varieties for cooking and turning into passata. Over the years, I've tried more than a dozen tomato varieties - then each season I cut down the number still further.

Black Russian
Very beautiful large tomato. When ripe, each fruit is an almost chocolate colour with flecks of crimson – dark and succulent. Like Pink Brandywine below , the flavour is robust and stands up well to cooking and to mixing in salads with other strong flavours: feta, Camembert, anchovies.

Pink Brandywine
I should confess that I originally grew these for the name alone, but I’ve since been won over by the huge, irregularly-shaped fruits. The flesh is dense and flavoursome: they are delicious sliced into thick slabs and fried in olive oil, or cut into wedges and tossed with feta cheese and/or raw fennel.

For my money the best-flavoured tomato of all. Bright orange cherry variety with sweet juicy flesh that when truly ripe has a honeyed taste to it. This is the tomato I put in front of children who say ‘I don't like tomatoes’ and it works every time: their expression of deep suspicion turns into a broad grin once they taste them. They are steady reliable outdoor croppers as well, although in no way blight-resistant.

Super Marmande
I love the way these grow in folds and knobbles and bulges and I love the taste of a properly sun-ripened outdoor-grown Marmande tomato. This is something of a rarity, though, and usually I have to make do with ripening the fruit off the vine in the kitchen. These are the first of the 'big' tomatoes to ripen this year.

Red Alert
Reliably the first tomatoes to ripen – I can usually count on eating the first Red Alert before the end of June, and these are tomatoes grown outside, not under cover. They are nowhere near the best for flavour though and I tend to grill or roast them with sugar and seasoning, or use them in sauces – though you need rather a lot of them to make sauce compared to, say, the Brandywines or the Marmandes.

First In The Field
This year, the FinF plants, sown at the end of January, are heavy with tomatoes which are still resolutely green. Not so much First In The Field as Some Way Off The Pace.

Livingston Golden Queen
A heritage variety with large round yellow fruits. I’ve never been able to try these tomatoes at their best: in fact I’m not sure if in four years of growing them I’ve ever tasted a properly vine-ripened fruit, as each plant turns brown and keels over at the first sign of blight.

Gardener’s Delight
A lovely sweet cherry tomato which I used to grow; Sungold, above, has rather taken its place.

I’m still searching for my ideal medium-sized salad tomato and Tigerella is very nearly it. It’s very attractive with its striped flesh and when ripe almost to bursting, the flavour is good. But its lack of blight resistance means that many of the fruits get picked early to ripen indoors which means I rarely get the full flavour.

Tumbling Tom
A compact bushy plant which is ideal for hanging baskets and doesn't require all that tedious pinching-out of side shoots. The petite plum fruits lack depth of flavour for me.

Broad Ripple Yellow Currant
A heritage variety which was apparently ‘discovered’ growing out of a pavement in Indiana in the US. It’s a prolific bush bearing lots of tiny yellow fruits with a long season – they carry on producing into November if the frost holds off and are comparatively blight-resistant. The flipside to all this is that I don’t think they taste particularly nice. I have some seed saved if anyone would like to try them.

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