You Say Tomato

We’ve made it.

The season has started. In one week, we have witnessed a fundamental change of gear and perspective, from the broad strokes of the climate and landscape, to tiny seeds sown into three centimetre modules. In one week we have a twenty-four metre propagation bench lined, wired and gravelled up, and sown with subtropical “fruiting vegetables”. Most importantly, we have embarked on the next chapter of the Kondine Red story.

The story begins with my grandad. Grandad Fred is one of the heroes in my life, someone who, in my own way, I’ve drawn much inspiration from: someone who is not afraid of holding unconventional views and sticking by them, and someone who loved to work on the land. For him, as for me, these two things came together at one point in his life: as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, he was put onto land service, and spent the war working in the fields of Essex.

During the war effort, tomatoes were regarded as an important vegetable crop in terms of nutritional value per area, so much so that they were grown on a field scale. Fred recalls spending days on end going up and down rows pinching out, and going to bed seeing tomato row after tomato row as he shut his eyelids. “The best times of my life”, he’d later say.

As my horticultural interest developed, I asked my grandad if he could remember which varieties of tomato he used to work with. “Kondine Red” he answered without hesitation: “[the farmer] said it was the only tomato that would grow well in the Essex soil”. By this time I was gardening in Hackney, not too far from ‘the Essex soil’, and I quite fancied the idea of growing ‘my Grandad’s tomato’ in our glasshouses.

So I flicked through a few seed catalogues without success. The ever-reliable Google Search found few references to Kondine Red, and these referred to a past scientific trial: no one was offering to sell me any. I visited the Heritage Seed Library, who coordinate the living seed bank of old and threatened vegetable varieties, but to no avail: even their thousands-strong database did not list this once important cultivar.

The last hope was the self-same Heritage Seed Library’s Annual Catalogue, where they not only list seeds available to members (a large gene pool of seed is now illegal to sell, so such schemes, and the gift economy, are the only guarantor of our rich vegetable biodiversity), but also host a  Seed Swap page, where members list what seeds they have spare, and which they’re searching for.

Not long after the Catalogue came out, I received a small package from one Del Marcangelo of Ruislip, containing two small batches of the legendary tomato seed. We’ve made it. According to Del, the variety originated in 1931: Mr. Cuthbert’s Guide to Growing Tomatoes (1953) declared it “a short-jointed variety and a heavy cropper. One of the best-known and most popular types”, whilst in 1962 Carters Tested Seeds Blue Book described it as “a prolific cropper of good quality fruit”. Yet by the end of the century Kondine had become, apparently, all but extinct. The world of vegetables is as fast-moving and fickle as any other, so it appears.

The seeds germinated, and by August we were cropping Grandad Fred’s conscientious love apple in our Springfield Garden. This would almost qualify as a horticultural fairy tale, but for one final twist: These ‘Dig For Victory’ heroes didn’t grow that well in our sub-Essex soil, and didn’t taste of much.

But such considerations can’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story: in the intervening years I’ve carried on growing Kondine Red and saving seed: the plant has adapted better to our soil now, and I do believe we’ve started to breed more flavour back into it: quite unprompted, a friend of mine who bought a number of tomato plants from us a couple of years ago voted KR as his number one for yield and flavour.

As I write, they are starting to stir in our hand-mixed seed compost, on our fresh gravel bench, in our brave new glasshouses. There is still a peace to be won. I have a feeling this will be their year.

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