A century ago a tomato in England, in February, might have been unthinkable. But then this February just been felt unthinkable: two sunny weeks with twenty-degree afternoons. It was with the same pleasant unease with which I lounged in the sun, that I greeted the Tomato Stall’s offerings at my local farmer’s market. The Tomato Stall’s table was groaning under fruit, as though it were midsummer. Using eco-friendly ideals, greenhouses and LED’s allows them to cultivate a tongue-lolling 320,000 kilos of UK grown tomatoes a week. That is about 50% of the tomatoes consumed by the UK, grown in an eco-paradise on the Isle-of-Wight. The stall tender assured me that ‘the best of the winter crop is as good as the best of the summer’. The winter what? Wintering UK tomatoes seem as wrong as a t-shirt in February.
Casting our eyes back, the UK has a tumultuous relationship with the tomato. Arabella Boxer found them ‘characterless, uniform in size, cotton woolly in texture and lacking real flavour’. That was in 1983. And little seems to have changed in UK supermarkets. You might blame this on our then young European Union membership but a European friend of mine expostulated, when I said that I was writing about tomatoes, ‘’What, about how you can’t grow a single one worth eating on this recalcitrant little island?’’. Confirming to me that even in the twilight of our European years, we’re still known, on the proverbial column we call the tomato vine, as tomatoless.
Sicily, according to the European commission, are the market leaders on tomato production. Poly-tunnels snake the landscape there, bursting with fruit. However, most of Europe and indeed our supermarket’s tomatoes come from Morocco. In fact, well over the EU import quota, to supply a booming demand. It has triggered a debate on the competition of cheap Moroccan labour, banned pesticides and dubious soil quality from whence these imports arrive.
So for the first time then, ‘Tomato Stall’ (albeit helped with a few LEDs) is successfully cultivating organic tomatoes in the UK all year round. And even if it has taken its sweet time (the fruits have been successfully cultivated in South America since about 700A) the UK tomato industry appears to be turning over a new leaf.
The ‘Tomato Stall’ tender proudly showed me a photograph of a fluorescent pink-lighted greenhouse with the air of a surreal vegetal rave. So some of the best tomatoes available in the Europe are being grown in the UK, mildly concerning but that is the truth. They were, suffice to say, exemplary. Each and every one.
But why would you want a tomato in February? I had the rare pleasure of a warm afternoon and a tomato salad next to my open book in the garden. It was an exceptional circumstance, but the temperature has since returned to the its usual frigid setting until at least July. Tomatoes taste of summer. Not February. And I don’t want to jump the gun. Like spoiling the plot of a book. I anticipate summer. I anticipate tomatoes. What is more, without its other seasonal companions, the tomato is like a stranded holidaymaker. Aubergine, white fish, fresh herbs, we will have to pop all of them under LED’s to get anything resembling a dish. A good tomato in February is an unthinkable novelty, but a novelty nonetheless. And while it might be better than dodgy Moroccan imports it raises questions as to why we are growing and eating tomatoes in winter at all.