In search of the ultimate tomato

Longstanding customers normally tell us that flavour is the main reason they buy our boxes, so we have to deliver. Mostly we do (I am proud of about 80% of what we sell about 90% of the time), but flavour is very hard to manage and requires constant vigilance to avoid slipping into safe but bland mediocrity. Flavour comes from an interaction of variety, soil type and growing conditions. Peats and sands are normally the easiest soils to manage, but our experience is that loams, with a good mix of organic matter and minerals, produce the best flavour. As a general rule anything that speeds up growth (most notably excess water and nitrogen) detracts from flavour; a little hardship improves taste and longevity but too much produces bitterness, off flavours and premature ageing.

It is a frequently quoted rule of management that “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”; an irritating adage but, after 25 years in business, I have to admit, largely true. The problem with flavour is that it is subjective. Exceptions are pressure testing (quantifies squidginess of an apple) and brix testing (measures sugar content). Unsurprisingly, since the advent of these gadgets, apples have become sweeter and more juicy. We have satisfied these simple tastes but as is often the case with immediate gratification, the end result is ultimately boring; hence the rise in interest in heritage varieties with more subtle flavours.

Perhaps this is, in part, food snobbery. Sweet and juicy can be good, but so can a whole range of unquantifiable flavours and textures that are being lost as growers manage their crops to achieve the measurable at the minimum cost. Last week we ran a tomato tasting panel using staff (who we have tested and selected for their palates) and volunteers who were lunching in the Field Kitchen. A small minority liked the slow-grown, outdoor, more deeply flavoured (I thought) Marmande varieties from a loam soil but, to my horror, far more went for the sweet and juicy, indoor-grown cherry tomatoes. Maybe I’m a snob. Maybe I am just wrong. For now we will stick with the cherries, but like all frustrated pollsters, we will ask again next year.

Guy Watson

8 responses to “In search of the ultimate tomato

  1. I like your normal tomatoes better than the cherry tomatoes. At this time of year they’re tasting fantastic. And they keep forever too, I had a couple in my fruit bowl that I’d overlooked for over two weeks. Finally ate them last night and they weren’t even wrinkled.

  2. I agree with Guy in looking for something more than just “sweet and juicy”. I usually buy Riverford cherry toms because they are better than the tasteless offerings in shops. Order currently paused as we are harvesting our own, in particular, Gardener’s Delight. They have a real kick of flavour,so much more tangy than any I’ve bought. If you come up with something similar I’ll double my tomato order! Stella

  3. I like the heritage tomato flavours, and far from just sweet, love the deeper, sweet/ tangy balance the smokey and more complex ones too, and delight in the different colours, red / gold, green / gold,, orange, butter yellow, rose, black and chocolate colours. They add variety. A while ago Jersey exported a mixed tub of different heritage varieties to our supermarket, a lovely way to try the different flavours and colours. I bought two and saved one for seed, and I grew the ones I preferred this summer.

  4. Supermarket offerings are pretty bland most of the year, even when in season. I’m afraid Riverford’s out of season aren’t much better, though in season are ok. However, nothing beats my own Gardeners Delight. Anyone know why they can’t be grown commercially?

  5. Does anyone know the Blenheim Orange Pippin? A beautiful colour and a warm spicy smell that means Christmas to me.
    Margaret Granger

  6. I find Riverfords Cherry Tomatos performing very well, very tasty. I agree about Riverford being a taste thing. Amen to that!

  7. Well I’m no customer (live in Italy) and most Cherry tomatoes don’t have a great flavour, not even here. No worries Guy 50% of people don’t taste very well, they are not able technically. They go for sweet, acid, etc which to me are not really flavours.

  8. Hi People

    I agree with zephyrelle about Heritage tomatoes. They have a LOT more to offer.
    Their skins are thinner
    The middle stalk I found was soft not hard
    The Flesh has a lot more of it and less seeds/juice to taste ,
    Subtle and more complex flavours to it and not just Sweet or acidic.
    They seem to last well about 2 weeks or more
    I think they are easier on the digestive system as well. The more hybrid ones have more acidic ness and not always good on the stomach.

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