I never got round to blogging about last year's tomato crop, so here is a very brief summary of it before this year's crop reaches the point where I have to blog about that instead. I didn't grow very much last year, so here are the three best ones. Bottle tops are included for scale.
Essex Wonder - I got this one from the Heritage Seed Library, mainly for sentimental reasons. I grew up in north Essex which has (or had) an extensive market gardening and glasshouse industry. Essex Wonder was a popular market gardener's tomato from the 1930s to 1950s, extensively grown in the area before dropping from the catalogues and fading to near-extinction. I found it to be a very pleasant if rather "normal" tomato compared to the weird freakish stuff I usually grow. The fruits are almost perfectly spherical and bright red and come in a range of sizes from mini-cherry to golf ball, all with a pretty decent flavour.
OSU Blue Fruit
OSU Blue Fruit - oh this is special! Bred by Jim Myers at Oregon State University in the US, it's a dark anthocyanin-skinned purple tomato which, given enough direct sunlight, turns coal black when it's ripe. At the moment it isn't available commercially (as far as I know); they're working on improving its flavour and shape, and this prototype is doing the rounds among curious collectors and amateur breeders. I got mine from Michael Johnson in Nottingham.
The fruits are only purple/black on the outside. Cut them open and they are red. They also stay red - or a deep bronzy red-black - on any part that doesn't get full sun, because they need strong light to develop their colour. That includes the area underneath the calyx at the top of the fruit, so they have a little red star on the top when you harvest them. They are supposedly more reliable at developing the full colour when grown outdoors, but I grew mine in the greenhouse and they came up a treat.
As with many exciting plant breeding developments, the mechanism behind the blue fruit is relatively straightforward. There are three wild species of tomato which contain some anthocyanin pigment in the fruit, each involving a different gene. Two are dominant: Abg comes from Solanum lycopersicoides while Aft is found in Solanum chilense, and the recessive atv comes from Solanum cheesemanii. All of these genes have already been bred into cultivated tomatoes over the years, without producing fully blue fruits. What the OSU team discovered was that if you combine all three of these genes together you get a cumulative effect which intensifies the pigment. Voilà blue fruit.
The downside of OSU Blue Fruit is said to be its flavour, which has a reputation for being "inky". Anthocyanins are normally tasteless, but they're often accompanied by other compounds and biochemical changes which can affect the flavour. Consequently I wasn't expecting that much from it in the way of taste. But I was pleasantly surprised - it was actually pretty palatable. I'd be lying if I said it was up there with the best tasting tomatoes, but it certainly wasn't poor either … it was as good as or better than most of what you'd find in the supermarket.
Pugliese Green - this Italian variety was given to me by Jeremy Cherfas over at Agricultural Biodiversity. Despite the name, it's very much a red tomato, and doesn't look significantly different from other red tomatoes, though it has a certain intensity of colour. There is one thing that makes it stand out though - the flavour is stupendously good. I'm even able to nibble at it raw (see below). It's fruity and juicy and succulent with just the right balance of gel and flesh, and will probably become a flavour benchmark for me. Thank you Jeremy.
That was last year's crop. Meanwhile the 2010 crop is going nuts in the greenhouse making the most of the unlikely sunny weather. Here's what I've got crammed in there …
OSU Blue Fruit
Darby Striped Pink/Yellow
Darby Striped Red/Green
Pink Freud F3 (one of my own experiments)
Banana Legs x Green Tiger F1 (another bit of hand-pollinated jiggery pokery)
The horrendous affliction of late blight means that it's no longer practical to grow tomatoes anywhere but inside the greenhouse, where they're sheltered from the warm summer rain which brings the deadly spores to the garden. Normally it's not worth trying to grow any outdoor tomatoes any more, but Patrick kindly sent me some seeds of Tomatito de Jalapa, which is supposed to be blight resistant. There are genes for blight resistence in certain wild species of tomato, and some of these are being bred into garden varieties. From what I gather, this has been working OK with small cherry tomatoes but is not much cop when it comes to the big-fruited types. So if you want blight resistance you have to have tiddly little fruits. Which is fine by me, I don't mind. I have little knowledge of what Tomatito de Jalapa is like or how assiduously it fends off blight, but I'm looking forward to experimenting with it. The greenhouse is full, but the beauty of this one is that I can grow it outdoors.
Tomatito de Jalapa seedlings, as photographed a couple of weeks ago. They have since been potted up individually and are growing like rockets.
I've also got another tomato that I pinched from a restaurant. I don't know what variety it is, but I had to have it. At this point I need to confess something. I actually hate raw tomatoes, and can't eat them unless they're mixed with something else. I love them cooked, and I love growing them, but when it comes to snacking them off the vine - forget it. They actually make me gag. But a couple of months ago I was in a little basement restaurant in Cheltenham called Café Rubik, which does very nice food. The curse of being vegetarian though is that everything you order always comes with salad. Chefs seem to assume that all vegetarians are health freaks and don't want to eat chips or anything stodgy and interesting, so if you're vegetarian simply because you don't want to eat dead animals but do want to eat stodgy interesting and unhealthy stuff without dead animals in, you're out of luck. So, confronted with the mandatory pile of bleak greenery, I was thinking "fuck, how am I going to get through all these raw tomatoes?" But when I nibbled the edge of one I was surprised to find it rather fruity. I nibbled a bit more. It didn't taste of tomatoes at all, it was like a tangy little fruit - a cape gooseberry or something. I then astounded myself by eating a whole one, and actually enjoyed it. This really was a momentous event because I've never eaten a raw tomato like that before. It was unprecedented.
Well obviously there's only one thing you can do in those circumstances, and that's steal one to take home and get the seeds out of it. I waited some while for a moment when the waiter wasn't looking, but he seemed to be looking all the time, so in the end I just grabbed one and shoved it in my pocket. He looked a bit surprised but didn't say anything. I took it home and fermented the gel and got quite a few seeds from it. Although received wisdom has it that tomatoes need to over-ripen to the point of inedibility in order to produce mature seed, I've always had perfectly good results saving seeds from eating-stage tomatoes, and indeed other vegetables. If you like the taste of it scrape some seeds out of it, that's my motto.
The original Café Rubik tomato, as pilfered.
Sure enough the seeds germinated rampantly and have grown into very healthy plants. They all look the same so far too, which is a good sign, as it implies that it's a true-breeding open pollinated variety and not a hybrid. I've no idea what variety it is, though presumably it does have a real name. It might even be a well known mainstream commercial variety for all I know. But I've called it Café Rubik in lieu of an identification. Not much to tell from its outer appearance … it's round, and red, and tomatoish. I'll post pictures of the plants as they grow in case anybody recognises it.