I’ve tried growing tomatoes every year for the last 5 years. Very little success. They grow. They go green and then never ripen or indeed they ripen but taste of rather little, let alone tomato. So when I was invited to Spain to learn about how tomatoes are grown over there, I was packed and ready in a flash!
My visit was to a farm called Clisol which has been a family business for generations. It’s now run by the inspiring and energetic Lola Gomez Ferron. She started “farming” when she was just a toddler. Her job would be to push a broomstick along the polytunnel which would shake the rain off. Since then she’s been obsessed not only with growing them but also teaching people like me about how she grows them. It’s very different to anything I’d ever seen before.
Firstly she uses no insecticides or pesticides on her crops but rather a system called biological pollination which uses bees. For pest control she buys insects which eat the insects she doesn’t want in her environment and so it’s all a natural cycle.
Her method is used across 2.2 hectares of land much of which is covered in polytunnels. In Almeria there is a desert like climate and so from a temperature perspective, perfect for growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes. But the downside is that it’s windy and thus difficult to grow anything outdoors. Over the last 50 years or so farmers have developed various kinds of greenhouses and polytunnels to overcome the challenges posed by the wind. Lola’s modern day polytunnels not only protect from the wind but also automatically adjust the vents to allow air in when the environment becomes too warm.
I’d never really heard about hydroponics either but this is the art, and it really is an art as much as it is scientific, of growing in water. As well as the wind, a key challenge in Almeria is the soil. Farmers are known to import as much as 50 cm of soil from other parts of Europe to place on top of the local arid soil to plant in. This works for 5-6 years but then the richness in the soil depletes requiring the soil to be replaced which is laborious and expensive. Lola’s system uses water with added nutrients to grow her plants. Special sensors detect when the plants need more water and it is then delivered via a sophisticated automated system. The water is recycled with older seedlings and plants. It is quite frankly genius.
All these efforts deliver a top quality crop and top tasting tomatoes. They are available to buy here in the UK at selected outlets.
Lola says the best way to eat tomatoes to absorb their nutritional values is completely raw sprinkled with olive oil and salt. This was delicious but I had another very tasty tomato dish when I was out in Spain that I know I will make again and again. Gazpacho. I have never been able to palate this because I don’t like the idea of cold soup, but in the Spanish heat with a glass of local red wine it was truly magnificent.