Spectator Leslie Geddes-brown’s top tomatoes
THE day reports appeared that scientists were trying to put the taste back into tomatoes, I was ordering my vegetable seeds for the spring. They don’t really need to get out their test tubes—they could just look at the seed catalogue for the French firm Graines Baumaux. The size of Vogue, this thundered through the letterbox last month.
If you think I exaggerate, just consider the tomato section. Compared to Franchi Sementi of Harrow, the Italian firm based in England, which only offers 37 tomato types, Baumaux has 26 pages dedicated solely to tomatoes. Each variety is illustrated and has helpful remarks, such as ‘parfaite’, ‘succulente’ and ‘type cerise’. These are augmented by small cartoons of French chefs making ‘superb’ gestures.
Faced with so much choice, I’ve ordered four varieties. These are Ebeno (blackish in colour), Indigo Blue Beauty (a generous person would call this blue, but it’s really dark purple), Tirouge (boldly striped yellow on red) and Black Zebra Cocktail. This has ‘excellente saveur, riche et complexe’ and is a cross between Green Zebra and Black Cherry.
Until you’ve leafed through the 700 tomato varieties, you’ll have no idea what the supermarkets could do. Instead of boring, round, red tomatoes the size of a golfball, you can choose from a huge range of colours and sizes.
There are at least three— Pineapple, Brutus and Gigantomo —that weigh 3lb each and Grinta is more than 5½in long. At the other end of the scale, Galapagos ‘avec un curieux parfum épicé’ is shown together with a Euro coin that’s bigger than each fruit. These are bright yellow.
It’s also worth looking out for Cuor di Bue (in Franchi’s catalogue), which means Ox Heart —exactly as it is shaped—and Costoluto Fiorentino. The company unfortunately describes the latter as a ‘misshapen, heavy, ribbed beef tomato’. Baumaux has a Costoluto Genovese. It’s just as ugly if you disapprove of heavy ribbing, but I love its authenticity. Zapotec Pleated, an ‘ancienne variété mexicaine des indiens Zapotec’, can also be found at Baumaux.
Tomatoes here also come in pink, green, pale or bright yellow, orange, ‘black’ and ‘blue’. If you’re tempted by this multiplicity of tomato types, Baumaux will tell you some can be grown outdoors and others in pots on windowsills, so there are few of us who can’t grow them.
Then what? To start with, I arrange mine on a wooden charger, sorted by colour. Just as decorative as flowers.
David Tanis, head che f at the iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, offers Sliced Tomatoes with Sea Salt in his book A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. ‘This isn’t so much a recipe,’ he writes, ‘as a way to think about tomatoes… you want 4lbs ripe summer tomatoes, different colours if possible. Choose heirlooms such as Green Zebra, Yellow Taxi, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple and Lemon Boy.’
You can get Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra from Simpson’s Seeds. The firm was started by Colin Simpson, a Sunday Times investigative reporter I knew. Baumaux has Lemon Boy, Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra.
These you should slice, scatter with torn basil leaves, chives or parsley and, at the last minute, scatter sea salt on top. I would use Maldon. There’s a photo of the sliced varieties in a plain white dish and they really do look splendid. Make sure, adds Mr Tanis, that you never refrigerate tomatoes. Store and serve at room temperature.
I haven’t even talked about their taste. Simpson’s says Tomande F1 is ‘one of the best tasting large tomatoes’ and I’m with Franchi in rooting for Costoluto Fiorentino. But why not discover the taste of real tomatoes yourself?
‘ Baumaux’s giant catalogue has 26 pages dedicated solely to tomatoes ’