A new tomato crop is developing. I managed to get a few early tomato plants into the ground in September. I cheated and bought a punnet of seedlings. September is long before our own naturally germinated ‘wild’, self sown tomatoes seeds emerge. I bought a punnet of seedlings from the garden centre. In the past, if I got them in the ground in early September, then we might get a ripe tomato in the week between Xmas and new year. The past decade had been unusually hot and drought ridden here up until 2019. The extra heat allowed the tomatoes to establish so early.
This past year however, it has been cooler and wet in comparison, so the season is delayed somewhat. We do have tomatoes climbing up the tomato stakes, the tallest being about one metre high so far. There are even a few small green tomatoes developing now. However, I doubt if there will be a ripe, red tomato for Xmas, never mind in the next 2 to 3 weeks.
I have planted 4 beds so far, around 10 plants in each bed. The earliest ones are all flowering well now, so it promises to be a good crop in the new year when the warmer weather develops. Well, I’m hoping so anyway. I like to make all the jars of ‘passata’ that will last us all year, as well as all the tomatoes that we will consume in salads and ratatouille dishes over the summer.
Tomatoes need a warm soil temperature and longer daylight hours to thrive. Our own naturally germinating ‘wild’ tomato seeds are just now emerging in among the other beds. So the soil temperature must now be more or less OK. The ‘Diggers Club’ guide tells me that the soil temp for tomatoes must be above 16oC, but I’ve never bothered to go out side with a temperature probe to test the soil temp to find out. Early September seems about right and the plants grow, albeit quite slowly at first. In years gone by I even started the young tomato seedlings off in late August under a sort of home made ‘cloche’ made by wrapping the industrial sized ‘glad-wrap’ that I used to have in the old kiln factory for delivering kilns, and wrapping this around the old wire mesh frames that we used to cover the garden beds before we built the bird proof enclosure. This early frost and cold night protection worked for the important first month, until the weather warmed more, or until the plants got so tall that they out-grew the height of the temporary cover.
Yesterday I went into the garden after lunch to do a bit of tidying up and weeding. I ended up hammering in tomato stakes and tying up the tallest tomatoes. One thing led to another, then I suddenly realised that the chooks had put them selves into their house and were ready for bed as it was after 6 pm. The afternoon had just slipped away while I was being busy.
Tying up tomatoes is such a great job. The season is still early and there is no hope of seeing a tomato any time soon, but just touching the tomato leaves or even brushing against them gives off such an appetising smell. It makes my mouth water with anticipation. I don’t know what chemical is in the tomato leaves, but it is delicious to smell. So spending a few hours hammering in the wooden stakes and tying up the leaders with lengths of soft cloth is a wonderful experience. It promises so much. There is so much optimism tied up in each of those soft little bows.
My go-to reference about my vegetables and fruit growing info is The Oxford Book of Food Plants. It tells me that Tomatoes, ‘Lycopersicon esculentum’ are a native of the lower Andes, and are valued for their high vitamin content. It is part of the solanum family along with deadly nightshade, datura, petunias, the potato, capsicum, chilli and egg plants. In fact eating green or unripe tomatoes can make you sick. Unripe tomatoes contain a toxic alkaloid called ’tomatine’ which is an insecticide, fungicide and has anti microbial properties which are there to presumably protect it from predators, but are easily broken down by cooking, so it is OK to eat them in chutney. No one I know eats them raw when green. However, I did see in ‘wikipedia’ that tests have been carried out and you would have to eat more than half a kilo of tomato leaves, where the tomatine is more concentrated, to get a toxic reaction, which wouldn’t be lethal. I love the smell of touching tomato leaves, but I have no inclination to eat them.
It also tells me that it needs a minimum temperature of 55 to 60oF or 12 to 15oC. This is considerably less than that stated by ‘Diggers’ and may explain why I can get away with starting them in a closh in August here.
The Oxford also tells me that the tomato was originally called ‘pomo-d’oro’ or golden apple, presumably because the earliest varieties brought back from the Americas were a yellow variety? Quite possible? I don’t know. I did read online on a New Zealand web site that only the yellow tomato can be digested properly by humans and that all the red coloured varieties are only digestible by animals!!! Something to do with different forms of lycopene as I remember. However, I have grown a few different yellow tomatoes and they were universally bland and lacking acid in the flavour profile, so I have avoided them ever since. Not worth the trouble to cultivate. I seem to be able to get all the lycopene that I need from the tasty red ones, but do I need any at all?
Michael Pollan, in ‘Defence of Food’ (p67), advises that red lycopene can be easily digested when cooked in olive oil. Italian cooks have always seemed to have known that. Dr Norman Swan in his book, ’So you want to live Longer’ (p 81). Lycopene reduces oxidative stress in the body from free radicals. “There’s a multi-billion dollar industry which sells this idea in a bottle. – Trouble is that they don’t work.” “you’re on much safer ground betting on what’s on your stove”. He consistently returns to the idea that tomatoes cooked in olive oil are really good for you – as part of a Mediteranian diet, low in meat and high in coloured vegetables and whole grains.
I have read elsewhere that all domesticated tomato varieties today are descended from the red-fruited wild tomato, Solanum Pimpinellifolium. Perhaps named after the scarlet pimpernel? One of the other early names for tomato, besides ‘love-apple’ and ‘golden-apple’ was ‘wolf peach’. Which accounts for the latinised name ‘lycopersicon’ used by Linnaeus to describe them in 1753, and still in use today. Tomatoes first appeared in Europe in around 1535 on the return of the Spanish conquistadors from Peru, It took over 150 years for the tomato to be integrated into everyday cuisine, starting in Italy, then slowly spreading across Europe. It’s acceptance was rather slow.
John Ray, The English Botanist, son of a village blacksmith, went on to study at Cambridge, Trinity College, He became the college Steward. He travelled widely in England and Europe, and while in Italy in the 1660s he wrote. ‘The Italians cook tomatoes with marrows, peppers, salt and olive oil’. Perhaps the first ever reference to ratatouille?
Norman Swan would approve.