Tomatoes, and the Triumph of Hope

I’ve made mention here before of  how, in the garden calendar, every week witnesses an annual event, a holy day, so that the garden seems to become the venue for a series of small festivals. Last week saw the Last Week of the Strawberries, but before the glittering red decorations were down, the garlic was brought in, decking the glasshouse with its muddy white ribbons.

Even in this gloomy growing season, the regular harvest festivals serve to lift the spirits and bring reasons to be cheerful: the possibilities of redemption whatever the weather. In this gloomy growing season, the more reason for smiles and small celebrations as we greet the slow, but blessedly sure, fruition of beetroot, cucumber, french beans, tomatoes. And the greatest of these is tomatoes.

What is it with the British ans their tomatoes? for a Central American plant long regarded as a poisonous (due to its membership of the Nightshade family) ornamental, and only admitted into full culinary citizenship during World War Two, it is surprisingly central to our food and gardening culture. When it comes to flying off the shelves – or rather, sliding off the grocers’ grass – of our market stalls, they beat all comers, even strawbs. The same is true for our plant sales: in London it seems every gardener of every culture is somehow compelled to raise a few toms. And also non-gardeners: in so many urban yards and balconies, the “love apple”, or “wolf peach”, as it has been variously known, is the only cultivated plant on show, in grow bags, pots, or rare squares of ground.

In a bad year – of which 2012 is an outstanding example  – the plants might give few ripe fruit even, and green tomato chutney will be the only order of the day. For this reason I, perhaps dogmatically, regard them as an “indoor crop”. Conversely, perhaps this riskiness gives an extra frisson that makes planting some “Gardeners Delight” even more irresistible. Perhaps, after all, we all live in hope.

There is nothing remotely frisson about Blight appearing on our Black Russians in early July. Though I suppose the premature presence of this awful disease will result in greater rejoicing for every week of surviving tomato fruitfulness hence. Amongst our other heritage cultivars this year are local heroes “Kondine Red” (see March 2010 entry) and “Essex Wonder” (see March 2011); “Garden Peach”; “Tiger Tom”; and “Carter’s Golden Sunrise”.

“Tiger Tom” is an early, good cropper, with attractive stripes, that wins many of our taste tests, striking a near-perfect balance between acidity and sweetness. “Carter’s Golden Sunrise”,  a  bright yellow orb, tastes like tomatoes used to. It was raised by Carter’s of Raynes Park, London, in the 1890s, when the ubiquitous popularity of this odd, blight-prone, cold-intolerant plant can barely have been imagined possible. But other worlds are possible, beyond this climate chaos, and other symptoms of our social and environmental malaise: there truly is hope in the nightshade.