A garden of delights at Heirloom Tomatoes in Baldersby Gardens, Thirsk
PUBLISHED: 12:22 24 September 2013 | UPDATED: 12:22 24 September 2013
Tomatoes have a long and rich heritage as Annie Stirk, our food and drink consultant, discovers
When Chris Cole opens his post in the morning it’s not unusual for him to find a squashed tomato inside the envelope. But it’s no accident (or an unfriendly postman) that tomato seeds and crushed fruits make a regular appearance through Chris’s letterbox; in fact, these moments are eagerly anticipated. At his business Heirloom Tomatoes in Baldersby Gardens in Baldersby, Thirsk, Chris has become something of a tomato tsar, cultivating hundreds of tomato plants and handpicked seeds for amateur gardeners – swapping seeds through the post with other enthusiasts – and producing the most incredible collection of heirloom tomatoes you’re likely to come across.
In fact, if you thought the perfectly round and red salad tomatoes on the supermarket shelves were the only tomato you could get, you’ll need to re-adjust your set – red tomatoes are just the tip of a wondrous and colourful world of solanums.
‘There are actually some 10,000 varieties of tomatoes globally,’ says Chris, who’s assisted in the business by son George. ‘The pre-packaged ones we see in the shops – picked green, falsely ripened, which look great but taste awful – are very, very different from the extraordinary and exceptional flavour of a home-grown tomato: nothing can beat that.’
Indeed, as anyone who has tasted the first sun-warmed tomato of the season from the greenhouse or garden will attest, a homegrown tomato is a rich, red jewel in any gardener’s crown. Though at Heirloom Tomatoes, they’re not always red. Look along the greenhouse benches in Chris’s garden and you might be hard pressed to find that round, brick red tomato we’re so familiar with. In fact, you might think you need an appointment with the optician. White tomatoes rub vines with fuzzy coated peach types, chilli-shaped fruits mingle with tomatoes the size and flavour of grapes – and then there is the Porcupine Tomato, where the fruits swell from a halo of prickly spines.
For Chris, it’s one of those cases of a hobby that grew out of control. ‘I’d always grown tomatoes in my back garden but I became frustrated with the lack of varieties on offer,’ he says. ‘Even for the average gardener, it’s hard to get away from the standard Ailsa Craigs or Gardener’s Delights, so I started doing some reading around the subject and soon became obsessed with finding new varieties and producing my own seeds.’
Chris’s background as a fine food pâtissier, with its propensity for meticulousness, has certainly helped in his self-taught skill of seed germination and ongoing research into tomatoes. ‘I find the flowers of the tomato endlessly fascinating and from this you can tell exactly what the fruit will be,’ says Chris.
‘When explorers originally plucked the tomato from the forests of Central America, they wouldn’t have had the flowers they have today. Tomatoes lost their natural pollinators and have developed flowers that don’t need bees or insect to pollinate them. They are the most amazing things.’
It’s around February that Chris’s growing year begins, when the seeds of the previous year’s tomatoes are sown. Chris also conducts a series of germination trials (popping seeds onto wet paper to see which ones sprout) so they can be sure they are viable before wrapping them up into seed packets for sale. ‘Aside from the uniform hybrid varieties, we grow and sell all our own seeds,’ says Chris. ‘But unlike a lot of seed merchants, I always grow a batch so I can taste them and let people know what they look like and taste like when fully grown.’
Non-hybrid heritage or heirloom tomatoes are typically old varieties of tomatoes that in the past 40 years have been lost or forgotten due to their replacement by hybrid tomatoes, which are bred for their uniformity and commercially attractive characteristics. Heirloom tomatoes by their very nature are often unusually shaped, brightly coloured and, as aficionados like Chris believe, superior tasting.
At Baldersby, Chris grows tomatoes that range from red to yellow, orange, purple and even black; some are striped, others multi-coloured, some are like peaches, others like pears. Some were popular with Victorian kitchen gardeners, while others can be dated back to the time of the Inca Empire. Their names – Sunbaby, Lollipop, Black Truffle, Green Sausage, Pink Ping Pong – are equally evocative.
‘I’m probably best known for Snow White, which has the taste and texture of a whole grape, or Red Grape Sugar Plum, a sweet plum tomato of cherry size, which can grow up to 100 fruits on one vine,’ says Chris. ‘They all hold their own fascination.’ Perhaps more unlikely for the Vale of Yorkshire, Chris also grows many of the tomatoes outdoors too. I have 22 outdoor varieties this year – with some quite exotic types from Africa and Australia – but it can be a challenge to grow them with the wind we get around here,’ adds Chris.
Indeed, as any amateur grower will know, tomatoes – whether grown indoors or out – can be a very labour intensive crop, needing daily checking for disease and, with cordon (or single stem) varieties, regular pinching out of the side shoots to regulate growth. ‘You have to ensure some have enough water, and others don’t have too much, and each variety has specific needs,’ says Chris. ‘Every day, we’re checking for things like white fly and botrytis (grey mould) – because once you’ve got it in a greenhouse, it can be devastating.’
Heritage varieties, by their very nature, tend not to be as disease resistant either, and are less reliable fruiters. In fact, last year’s washout summer almost spelled disaster for Chris. ‘The awful summer almost wiped us out,’ says Chris. ‘Tomatoes hate humidity and all that dampness was crippling. As I tended to the plants I could hear the repeated sound of rotten fruit dropping off the plants and onto the greenhouse staging. The strangest thing of all was that when we opened up the tomatoes to extract the seeds, the majority of the fruits had no seeds – a devastating blow for a seed merchant.’
Thankfully, this year’s Mediterranean-like summer has produced a bumper harvest, so Chris is hopeful that gardeners across the country will be growing even more heritage varieties next year.
‘They’re such beautiful plants, lovely to look at with fabulous flavours and if we didn’t grow heirloom varieties it’s certain that some would be lost forever,’ says Chris. ‘I would encourage everyone to try – whether growing or simply tasting – at least one new variety of tomato this year. The smorgasbord of flavours and textures is staggering and you really are missing out if you just opt for the ones wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket.’
Baldersby Gardens, Ripon Road, Baldersby, Thirsk, North Yorkshire, YO7 4PS
Heritage tomatoes are used by many of Yorkshire’s top chefs at places such as Swinton Park, The Star at Harome, Harvey Nicholls, Rudding Park, The Angel at Hetton, The Burlington and many more. They can also be purchased at specialist retailers such as Regal Fruiterers in Harrogate.
Regal Fruiterers Harrogate
142-144 King’s Road
Harrogate HG1 5HY
01423 509 609