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Sunshine fruit: the Isle of Wight’s incredible tomatoes

Sunshine fruit: the Isle of Wight’s incredible tomatoes

by Great British Chefs 01 May 2018

With more sunshine than any other part of the UK, the Isle of Wight is the perfect place to grow tomatoes. But The Tomato Stall take things to the next level, creating microclimates inside gigantic glasshouses with cutting-edge tech to produce some of the best tomatoes in the world.

How many times have you heard someone mention that tomatoes don’t taste like they used to? It’s certainly true that the mass-produced tomatoes from abroad – often Spain, Holland and Morocco – are pretty uninspiring; watery, tasteless and with a mushy, floury texture. If you’ve ever grown your own tomatoes then you’ll know how fragrant and sweet they can be when picked and eaten straight from the plant, but to get the same experience from shop-bought varieties you need to keep an eye out for those grown on the Isle of Wight – perhaps not the first place you’d think of being home to top-quality tomatoes.

The Tomato Stall is responsible for the Isle of Wight’s tomatoes, working since the early 2000s to make the island known for the fruit. Originally using old glasshouses on the island that were previously reserved to grow flowers and then bog-standard salad tomatoes, it’s now home to around sixty commercial varieties of tomatoes which come in a cornucopia of colours and flavours.

‘The UK’s attitude to tomatoes – and food in general – is almost unrecognisable today compared to fifteen years ago,’ says managing director Paul Thomas. ‘Back then you might have seen the odd vine tomato if you were lucky, and now there’s a huge demand for all the different varieties. When I started working here I was taking a few interesting fruits to farmers’ markets in London, and the interest just grew and grew. Now we’re growing around sixty-five different varieties to sell, and have another 150 varieties which we’re trialling at any one time to see if we can grow them commercially.’

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The Tomato Stall's glasshouses are incredible examples of technological prowess, but the growers also rely on bees for pollination and various bugs to keep pests at bay
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One of the most important things the company has done is expand the number of varieties they grow, working with chefs to show how they can be used in recipes

Walking around the glasshouses, it’s clear that every single element of tomato growing has been painstakingly reviewed and improved to become the best it can be. Different types of glass are used in different types of glasshouses to benefit different types of tomatoes. An AI system reads the amount of sunlight multiple times a second and adjusts other variables accordingly. CO2 is pumped into the glasshouses and humidity is controlled. The Tomato Stall is even experimenting with special LED lights developed by Philips to see how they can benefit the fruits. But despite all these cutting-edge methods, the business is actually incredibly sustainable, and relies on nature just as much as technology to produce the best tomatoes it can.

‘We’re the biggest grower of organic tomatoes in the UK and around thirty percent of our tomatoes are organic, but the only difference between our organic and non-organic crop is that our non-organic tomatoes are grown in coconut husks rather than soil,’ says Paul. ‘That means we can’t use pesticides, so we turn to natural solutions instead. Our glasshouses contain their own little ecosystems, with bees pollinating the plants and natural predators eating all the mites and flies which could destroy the tomatoes. Someone walks round every glasshouse each week to make sure the ecosystem is perfectly balanced, introducing new bugs as and when they’re needed.’

This dedication to sustainability and organic production means The Tomato Stall has created an almost entirely closed system, as everything can be composted at the end of each harvest – including the string used to hold up the plants. ‘We use that compost on the soil to introduce more nutrition every year. It’s such a successful system that we’ve never had to have a year’s break to allow the soil to recover.’

While sustainability is obviously very important, since about 2005 The Tomato Stall’s main focus has been on developing different varieties of tomatoes. ‘If you go back 100 years to Victorian times, gardens would contain thirty or forty types of tomatoes, but then World War Two happened and it was all about rationing, yields and standardisation, so everyone started growing the boring salad tomato,’ says Paul. ‘It happened across the board – carrots suddenly became big and orange and cheesemakers focused solely on ‘Government Cheddar’ – but now we’re rediscovering and demanding more unusual, unique varieties. Some of our tomatoes have been developed over twenty years, and now we’ve got some that taste like apricots or gooseberries. It’s a really exciting time as people are appreciating simpler cooking with the best ingredients. If you want to make a tomato and mozzarella salad, you need the best tomatoes, the best cheese and some fantastic oil. If you can get your hands on them, then that salad will taste better than anything more complicated made with poorer quality ingredients.’

The final piece of the puzzle that makes Isle of Wight Tomatoes so good is their location. While any tomato grower could utilise the latest technology and make the most of natural, sustainable methods to improve their tomatoes, they wouldn’t be able to match The Tomato Stall’s fruits. That’s because they either wouldn’t get enough sun in the UK, or because they would need to be transported for miles if coming from a sunnier country like Spain or Italy.

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Green Tiger tomatoes have a sweet and tangy taste, making them perfect for roasting or turning into chutney
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Golden Classics have slightly less acidity and more sweetness than their red counterparts

‘We have more sunshine on the Isle of Wight than any other part of the UK, and because we’re a small island that light is intensified by the sea,’ explains Paul. ‘We’re also able to pick the tomatoes when they’re perfectly ripe, rather than picking them early and letting them develop their colour in a cold truck for a few days, which is what happens with tomatoes from mainland Europe. Once you pick a tomato it stops developing flavour, so it’s important to pick it as late as possible but before it swells and starts to split.’

Plenty of sunshine, incredible glasshouses, a sustainable approach to growing, an incredible number of different varieties and a very short time from being picked to sitting on shop shelves – that’s what makes Isle of Wight tomatoes the best you can get in the UK. There’s just one more thing you need to do when you get them home. ‘Don’t keep tomatoes in the fridge – the cold kills the flavour and destroys the natural sugars,’ says Paul. ‘Keep them in the fruit bowl instead – after all, they are a fruit!’

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