No more tasteless tomatoes
I have never paid much attention to tomatoes and all I really knew was that I liked Italian plum tomatoes for my pasta sauces, fresh San Marzano when I can find them in local Italian delis, cherry tomatoes on the vine and plain old no name varieties in the big buckets in supermarkets. I have never had the luxury of buying my tomatoes by the name, instead I have been buying by the colour and type.
All that has changed after my recent visit to the glasshouses that grow an amazing variety of fantastic tasting British Tomatoes on the Isle of Wight where I tasted some very juicy, flavourful, ripe tomatoes. My tomato tastebuds have been awakened. Gosh, we have been duped for such a long time, being offered only those tasteless generic, unnaturally uniform and tasteless water filled red fruits anymore.
Arriving on the Isle of Wight via the ferry/train combo, I am met by Paul Thomas and Joni at the station. A short drive through to the heart of the diamond shaped island is a lush green fertile valley which is the home of Wight Salad’s 26 hectares of greenhouses, where the Isle of Wight tomatoes are grown.
We meet up with Ross Hammond, Site Ops Manager to take us on a tour of the facilities. At the first greenhouse, we don white jumpsuits, shoe coverings and gloves, careful to not bring in any microorganisms that could taint the health of the plants. All the greenhouses are its own ecosystem and we had to be careful not to transfer any pesky bugs from one to another.
The humidity and heat hits you as you walk through the doors, then your green smell that get when you have a hot box full of green plants and ripe fruits. There are rows upon rows of very tall tomato plants, well over 10 feet tall in some circumstances, trailing like triffids up support poles. The vines can grow up to 40 feet in length it seems.
Each plant is heavily laden with fruit of varying degree of ripeness. Men on tall machinery are working by hand, picking ripe fruit for the market, tying up the growing stalks, cutting back sections, pruning by hand or sometimes even hand pollinating the plants.
The tomatoes are picked daily when they reach the desired amount of ripeness that is judged by its colour of 5 as per the chart. Here they like to pick their fruits at their ripest to ensure that optimum flavour. The Isle of Wight tomatoes get their great taste from the amount of sunshine they receive and benefit from being picked only when ripe.
As we traverse the rows of tomato plants, I spot many different varieties, distinct by their different colours, shapes and sizes. There are little yellow ones, stripey brown ones, big green ones, red plum shaped ones and more. Plucking the ripe fruits straight off the vine to taste leaves a lasting impression, each variety I tried had a completely different flavour. The juicy fruits were sweet and fragrant and some were more tart but each one was quite different and definitely did not taste anything like the tasteless varieties that I have been buying from supermarkets. Joni tells me that some of the staff here like to snack on bowls of ripe cherry tomatoes instead of sweets and I would too if they tasted like these ones.
The tomato plants are grown in coconut husk and watered with nutrient enriched water. The air in the greenhouses are controlled for both temperature and composition and Co2 is pumped in where required. Bright yellow and white boxes nestled between the rows houses bumblebees who naturally pollinate the plants. They even use predator insects to keep other harmful bugs at bay.
Organic Isle of Wight Tomatoes
About 10 hectares of greenhouses grow organic tomatoes. The difference is the soil in which the tomatoes are grown in, which is made of compost from the plant waste and from all the other material that supports the growing like the string to tie up the plants to the support sticks. In the darker months, the greenhouses use artificial lights to prolong the growing period. Typically the yield for organic tomatoes is about 15% less than the conventional crop.
Growing Tomatoes on the Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight, besides being England’s largest island, is also one of the sunniest place in England which makes it an ideal place to grow tomatoes. The Wight Salad group started as a cooperative for local growers and started by selling their produce in some of London’s farmers markets. They found a loyal following and high demand which has led to today’s successful operations. They now supply over 50% of the British tomatoes in the country. They sell to supermarkets across the country and also directly to the public at farmers’ markets across the South (which is how their business started) and also through their website.
On the Isle of Wight, with the help of heating in the greenhouses, they can grow tomatoes from March until November. The greenhouses are kept at an even temperature throughout the year and the humidity is controlled too. Irrigation of the greenhouse is supplied by harvesting rain water and run off.
They grow over 200 varieties of tomatoes here and about 40 of these are sold regularly in shops. With their special access to tomato seed producers around the world, they are often asked to trial older lost varieties of Heirloom tomatoes and they probably have the largest repository of tomato seeds in the world.
You can see some of the varieties that they grow here http://www.thetomatostall.co.uk/our-tomatoes/. Some of the varieties are baby plum, piccolo (cherry tomato on the vine), coeur de boeuf, Angelle, Sun Choco, Jack Hawkins an old English Heirloom and even San Marzano, the celebrated Italian plum tomatoes.
The last greenhouse we visit is the one that gets the most sunshine. This one houses the varieties that they are trialling for tomato seed producers and also to experiment with other crops. At the back of this greenhouse are rows of chilli plants, this year experimental crop. Don’t be surprised to see this being added to their list of products later.
Other Tomato Products from The Tomato Stall
Of course with all food producers, the fatter margins are with the added value products. Here, a lot of their nutrient and lycopene rich produce is used to make a variety of tomato based products under the The Tomato Stall brand. They make a variety of products like their distinctive bright yellow Sunshine Juice made with just tomatoes, which is now widely used to make Sunshine Mary’s, the golden version of a Bloody Mary.
Their compact production facility also produces Chilli Jams, Chutneys, Oak Roasted tomatoes and Oak Roasted tomato infused balsamic. I’ve used the chilli jam in making cheese toasties, a generous smear really transforms this into a moreish. The Great Taste Award winning oak roasted tomatoes are terrific used in pasta sauces and chopped and added into a posh Mac and Cheese ( something I learnt from Tom Aikens recently).
Roasting tomatoes for their award winning Oak Roasted Tomatoes takes over 10 hours of roasting ripe tomatoes in this oven, after cutting it by hand and manually turned. This is then smoked for about 4 hours. All highly labour intensive but the resulting flavour I can attest is sweet and flavourful.
If you have never tasted Isle of Wight tomatoes before, pop down to a local farmers market or order from them directly online. The people in the know order their tomatoes by name. You could also try one of their Specialty boxes which has a mixed variety of tomatoes that sometimes include some of the other less common varieties that they grow. Make sure you add some of their Roasted Tomatoes to that order too.
You can buy these amazing tomatoes and the other products from their site www.thetomatostall.co.uk , in Waitrose or Sainsburys with the packs labelled Isle of Wight Tomatoes. They can be found at Borough Market or at selected farmer’s markets around London like Pimlico, Swiss Cottage, Barnes and on the Isle of Wight itself, you can buy their tomatoes at Farmer Jacks.
EatCookExplore was a guest of The Tomato Stall and Isle of Wight Tomatoes