Fruit and Veg

A chef's guide to tomatoes

Written by Tom Moggach
July 19, 2018

Take a guess - how many varieties of tomato are grown worldwide?

More than 10,000 cultivars have been recorded. On the market, you'll find a dizzying range of shapes, colours and sizes - from the chunky Beefheart to pea-sized Tomberry. (For more detail on certain varieties, see our profile here). 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Marmande

The UK, of course, does not offer the ideal climate for this crop so commercial production is in glasshouses. 

But our wholesalers on the market also sell imported tomatoes from around the world - especially France, Spain, Italy and The Netherlands. 

Here's a taste of some of the varieties on offer. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Datterino Beefheart
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Camone Pineapple Copy

Key facts

> Tomatoes are half-hardy annuals in the Solanaceae family, which includes aubergines, potatoes and chillies. The plant originated in the Andes and was cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas. 

> Worldwide tomato production is approximately 150 million metric tonnes per year; British production accounts for 92,000 tonnes of this total. 

> UK growers supply around half of the tomatoes eaten in Britain during the summer according to the British Tomato Growers Association.  

Growing and harvesting

In the UK, tomatoes are typically grown in glasshouses using hydroponic technology - i.e. without the need for soil. 

British growers face stiff competition from imports, so tend to focus on the higher end of the market - mainly cultivating heritage tomatoes sold on the vine. 

New Covent Garden Market Customer Profile 2014 Nutbourne Tomatoes

The potential market is vast. A company in Suffolk, for example, is currently investing £30 million in building a glasshouse complex the size of eleven football pitches, incorporating cutting-edge LED technology. 

Thanet Earth is a leading grower in Kent. They use 20,000 additional sodium growlights in winter to harvest 12 months of the year. Special blinds direct light onto the crop, reduce heat loss and help to maintain ideal humidity levels. Combined heat and power technology (CHP) recycles waste heat and produces extra carbon dioxide for the plants. 

Nutbourne Nursery is a leading supplier to the market. Boss Gary Griffiths grows a wide range of specialty tomatoes under 0.41 hectares of glass. He crops from March to November, cultivating a huge range of tomatoes such as the bite-sized 'Couer de Pigeon' ('Pigeon Heart') and larger 'Couer de Boeuf' ('Ox Heart').

New Covent Garden Market Customer Profile 2014 Nutbourne Gary Griffiths

"We took a big gamble by growing all these varieties," Griffiths says, guiding me around. "We put our heart and souls into it. Every variety has a different cultural requirement ... It would be much easier selling one [variety] to a supermarket."

Griffith grows grafted tomato plants which he sets into rockwool blocks. The vines, which can reach 30ft long, are trained up wires which can be moved backwards and forwards - allowing for easier harvesting and control of the plants' exposure to light. Pollination is by imported bees.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Rockwool
New Covent Garden Market Customer Profile 2014 Nutbourne Mixed Box

The vines are fed by precise drip irrigation and grow up to 2ft per week. 

His team pick three times a week, with deliveries to a range of wholesalers on the market, distributors across England and a circuit of local shops.

New Covent Garden Market Customer Profile 2014 Nutbourne Picking
New Covent Garden Market Customer Profile 2014 Nutbourne Preparing Orders

Gary drives the tomatoes to London himself: "We almost lead the market in Covent Garden. We think our core strength is picking and shipping – we don't have any fruit going into cold stores. It's about attention to detail from beginning to end."

On the market

Most wholesalers sell tomatoes - with plenty of British-grown product during the summer. 

Five kilo mixed boxes of British heritage tomatoes are typically from growers Nutbourne or Westlands. Here are some on offer at wholesaler Bruce White.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Bruce White

Try The French Garden or European Salad Company for more niche Continental varieties such as Marinda, Datterino, Ananas or Camone.

Kitchen inspiration

Here's some inspiration from Great British Chefs. At Cornerstone in Hackney, chef Tom Brown has created these stunning dishes of raw scallop with a tomato dressing and spider crab with tomato and gazpacho. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Chef Tom Brown Scallops
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Chef Tom Brown Crab

On the 31st floor of The Shard, chef Dale Osborne at Aquashard has offered a vegetarian dish of gourds from Somerset with grilled marrow, heritage tomato, raw courgette and parmesan. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Chef Dale Osborne Gourds Parmesan

Here's a beautiful dish created by food stylist Irina Zlatev

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Tomatoes Ira Zlatev Tart

Have you got any innovative ideas for using tomatoes in the kitchen? Please let us know using the comments box below. 

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