“My love of gardening started from walking through gardens with my grandfather,” he writes, “so I feel a compulsion to investigate flavours he might have enjoyed. I’m a home coffee roaster, I love investigating wine, I love to cook, and tomatoes just fall into that arena: if you love food, tomatoes are just a great thing to grow and enjoy. It’s bred an ambition to keep that cycle going, to capture young people’s imagination, to keep heirlooms going. Obsessions only touch a few,but I want to keep varieties I love going so that today’s children and tomorrow’s grandchildren can enjoy them.”
I grow pretty good tomatoes. I have favourites I grow every year – a few cherry varieties (including ‘Peacevine Cherry’ and ‘Gardener’s Delight’), a plum or two, plus a few large-fruiting varieties (‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, plus others) – and they are so good it’s easy to stop exploring. Craig’s book has reminded me how foolish that is: “We are easily satisfied by our favourites – if I sold only two types of seedling, ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Sungold’, I could make 80 per cent of my customers happy – but I have an inquisitive mind. I need to move on and discover things. I get bored with the ordinary.”
Top tomato: ‘Cherokee Purple’ is popular with customers
Having sown my first batch of tomatoes in February, I’m sowing another now and another in a couple of weeks. These later sowings are a backup against failures and – now that I’ve spoken to Craig – an attempt to try something new.
“Colour is getting wilder and wilder here in the States, with stripy varieties now popular. Brad Gates, of Wild Boar Farms in California, has created lots of striped varieties… red with gold stripes, purple with green stripes, and I suspect much of this is that they’re good for chefs, being as beautiful as they are tasty. Dark varieties are definitely on the rise”.
This is also the case in the UK, with Japanese ‘Black Trifele’ one of my favourites. It’s a meaty, savoury, satisfying tomato – it seems a large number of the darkest varieties are savoury rather than overly sweet, with many bred to be high in nutrients and antioxidants. There are others, too – you’ll find ‘Indigo Rose’ and ‘Indigo Blue’ (from Plants of Distinction) and others. ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Red Zebra’ are fine-striped varieties, available from Real Seeds, as are ‘Striped Stuffer’ from Victorian Nursery, and ‘Vintage Wine’ and ‘Chocolate Stripes’ from Pennard Plants.
Grafted varieties are becoming popular in the US. As with fruit trees, the upper part of a tomato plant has been grafted on to a different root system, with the aim of encouraging growth and promoting disease resistance. I’ve grown some and found the plants have established well, often producing ahead of most of those I’ve grown from seed.
“I’m undecided about grafted tomatoes,” says Craig. “They’re expensive, as they take some work to create. It seems to me that the grafting process offers only partial disease protection – one of the major vectors of disease is from rain splash on to the leaves, so the plant above the graft is still vulnerable to splash or critters landing on the leaves. That said, if you mulch well to minimise splash, grafted plants may give you an edge in getting them plenty of sun.”
Growing guru: the tomato expert Craig LeHoullier
One of the undoubted bonuses of grafted tomatoes is that they allow you to play catch-up if your seedlings fail or you didn’t sow in time. Delfland has two collections, a heritage range and a selection of F1s, that can be delivered from now until the end of May.
With all these possibilities, but having sown early, I’m in danger of having already filled my tomato space. Craig is having none of it.
“Container growing is another thing that is on the up, partly with more people with limited space getting interested in growing their own food. I grow almost all my tomatoes in containers – aubergines, peppers, chillies, too – as I find that by using black plastic grow bags or pots I can quadruple my yields and push the ripening date thanks to the additional absorption of sun. I can plant a pepper in my soil here and get a crop of half a dozen, yet I can get 30-40 peppers from a grow bag.”
• One pot, ten crops: how to grow food in one container all year round
This is the year I start seed saving – and according to Craig, tomatoes may just be the perfect place to start.
“Seed saving can seem intimidating, but it’s actually simple with tomatoes as most pollinators don’t pay much attention to the flowers, so cross-pollination is unusual.
“I do it for all kinds of reasons: I love the sense of self-reliance and being able to share excess seed. We sell seedlings from our drive, so I save some seed for that – it helps spread the word about my favourite varieties. Saving seed also opens up the element of surprise: although tomato seed tends to come true to the parent plant, the odd rogue appears thanks to cross-pollination. ‘Cherokee Green’ and ‘Lucky Cross’ are just two of the many I’ve raised to become commercial successes.”
- The best seeds for tasty tomatoes
Getting lucky: ‘Lucky Cross’ has become a commericial success
To me this is witchcraft. I’ve never had a hand in creating and naming a new variety, but it makes me want to do it, especially as it seems so simple, if semi-accidental. Craig’s book and voice convey the “satisfaction at making a small contribution to people who love to grow and to chefs who love to cook with good tomatoes”.
This creation of new varieties is matched by Craig’s enthusiasm for heirlooms, which got both he and I growing.
“The Seed Savers Exchange here in the US is 40 years old, and along with Diggers in Australia [and the Heritage Seed Library in the UK] has been almost single-handedly responsible for raising awareness of heirlooms and allowing us to have such a wealth of varieties. Without them, a lot of varieties would have become extinct.
“Seed businesses have to run businesses, so I don’t begrudge them looking for new varieties to tempt people with. But I think non-hybrids, open-pollinated, hybrids and heirlooms can live peacefully side by side, because different gardeners and farmers will use different varieties.”
So that’s my next two Sunday afternoons sorted. With a half-decent growing season, thanks to Craig, the hot summer weeks are already looking much more appetising.
- Why home-grown tomatoes really do taste better
Custom coloured gazpacho
Through the years, we’ve sampled hundreds of versions of this cool, fresh tomato treat. Many were truly delicious, but after this interpretation by chef Sarig Agassi, of Zely and Ritz restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, no other gazpacho can compare. It is outstanding, simple to make and remarkable in the intensity of tomato flavour. Be sure to use only the best-flavoured tomatoes, as they definitely take centre stage.
This is a soup that really lets one play with hues – in terms of both colour and flavour (full, gentle, sweet, tart). For a knockout bright-yellow soup, try to find ‘Hugh’s’, ‘Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom’, ‘Lemon Boy’ or ‘Azoychka’. The large, meaty red-yellow bicoloured types, such as ‘Lucky Cross’, ‘Ruby Gold’ and ‘Pineapple’, make for a gentle, sweet soup that exhibits sparkles of pink among the warm yellow tones. Be adventurous and creative, and have fun with your tomato combinations, but beware when mixing green and red-fleshed varieties: the resulting brownish colour will not be nearly as appetising as the flavour.
Try yellow varieties for a stand out gazpacho
- 12 large heirloom tomatoes
- 1 sweet onion or leek
- 1 cucumber
- 1 sweet pepper
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup sherry vinegar
- 12 basil leaves Cherry tomatoes, halved
For the garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
Dice the tomatoes, onion, cucumber and pepper.
Add the salt, pepper and vinegar to the vegetable mixture and then let it marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Add the basil and purée.
Serve slightly chilled with some colourful halved cherry tomatoes and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.
Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier is published by Storey priced £14.99. To order your copy for £13.99 plus p&p please call 0844 871 1514 or visitbooks.telegraph.co.uk