With the season now lurching towards summer, it’s time to give some thought to the annual backyard tomato crop. Tomatoes are hands-down the number one summer food crop in New Zealand gardens. They are grown not just for their tasty and indecently nutritious fruit, but also as a source of jealous pride among many gardeners. Tomato growing can have a weirdly competitive edge between neighbours which I’ve never quite fathomed. I just aim for a healthy crop and couldn’t care less what’s going on over the fence.
How one goes about producing an abundant crop is not something I’m going to wade into here. Tomato growing is a contentious topic, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Besides, this is a food site first and foremost.
For many years the range of tomatoes available to the home food cropper in New Zealand was very limited. A few beefsteak types, a truss or two, couple of ‘acid free’ and the ubiquitous cherries. All perfectly respectable in and of themselves, but they were mostly bred for the tamer palates of yesteryear and high yields. Over the past decade or so I have trialled untold heirloom varieties in my garden and I must say, the majority simply didn’t deliver the goods. With its oppressive humidity Auckland is a rough town for tomatoes. Many so-called heirlooms just don’t have the mettle to handle themselves in a sticky summer scuffle. However, it’s not all bad news. I have had some successes along the way – plants that have laughed in the face of our maritime climate and, more importantly, produced some really great tasting fruit
The following are my favourite heirloom and less-than-conventional tomatoes. I grow these purely for their outstanding eating qualities and ability to actually survive the Auckland summer. Tomatoes are very, very fickle so I can’t guarantee these cultivars will work elsewhere in New Zealand. If all else fails, whatever your local garden centre offers as seedlings will have been selected for their suitability for your region, even if they aren’t quite so flamboyantly flavoursome.
Every summer plot needs a cherry tomato or two. You never really need more than this because they are so productive. But the problem I have with conventional cherries, such as Sweet 100, is that they tend to be thick skinned, unremarkable in flavour and are sometimes just too sweet. Black Cherry is a relatively new cultivar offering the rich smoky flavour typical of black tomatoes, with the amuse bouche convenience of a Sweet 100. Although still sweeter than the average tom, their sugar is offset with a good measure of acidity and real depth of flavour, plus the skin of Black Cherry is significantly thinner than most other cherry tomatoes.
Black Cherry is a very versatile tomato – delicious in salads, on pizza, and it makes an outstanding maroon pasta sauce. Like all cherry tomatoes it is well appreciated by marauding children and black birds alike.
Black tomatoes are a funny lot and will not necessarily appeal to everyone. As well as their rather brooding appearance they typically pack an intensely meaty flavour, with an unusual smoky/salty/ almost bitter edge. I just love them.
Black Krim is a very old cultivar thought to have originated on the Crimean peninsula, in what is now Ukraine. It produces medium/large, beefsteak-style tomatoes and is an excellent choice for frying or roasting with a little olive oil and balsamico. This is a true connoisseur’s tomato, and is very well matched with smoky cured meats or fish, and potent red wine.
If I had to choose just one variety of tomato to grow forever it would probably be this charming old French heirloom. Garden Peach is a small/medium-sized yellow truss tomato with a unique velveteen-fuzz skin and an orange blush – just like its namesake. The sugar-to-acid ratio is beautifully balanced, and the flavour rounded and full of old-fashioned tomatoey mellowness. Garden Peach is one of the few tomatoes I enjoy freshly picked, unadorned and sun warmed. Despite its slight fuzziness, the skin is very tender. Dried Garden Peach fruit feel just like dried apricots in the mouth. Lovely.
This tomato deserves to eaten on its own, perhaps with a little olive oil and sea salt, but never, never cooked. It remains the most disease-resistant heirloom I’ve ever grown, and is a real sweetheart of a fruit.
With its big, meaty orangey-red fruit, Oxheart is a versatile workhorse tomato. Originally from Italy, it has become one of the most popular heirloom varieties grown today. It looks and tastes like a tomato that means business and is a great choice for pretty much any situation, but is particularly well suited to soups, sauces and passata. If you want a high-yielding rough-and-ready Italianate tomato, this is definitely the fruit for you.
San Marzanos tomatoes are generally regarded as the finest variety for drying, saucing, canning and cooking. So sought after are they on the Italian market that San Marzano fraud has become a serious problem, forcing E.U police to conduct random DNA tests on consignments of fruit. At a glance the San Marzano looks like a rather stretched Roma tomato, but with a characteristically pointed base. They have a very high flesh-to-pulp ratio, meaning they cook down quickly for sauces but without losing too much volume and they don’t shrivel into insignificance when dried. The warm sunny flavour of this very special tomato is quite distinctive and they certainly elevate any dish they grace. When people talk about the incredible flavour of the tomatoes they ate on their travels in Italy, they are probably referring to this one.
Originally grown on the hot, dry slopes of Mt Vesuvius in Southern Italy, San Marzano can be a bit hit and miss in Auckland, but are certainly worth trying. I always intend to dry my entire crop for use over winter, but can never resist using a few in pizza sauce or on bruschetta and crostini.
All of the tomatoes described above can be sourced as seeds from Kings Seeds or Italian Seeds Pronto, and in some cases are supplied as seedlings by leading garden centres. Climate, weather, pests and disease permitting, I warmly recommend all of these varieties. Happy tomato cropping, cooking and eating Foodlovers!
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