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‘The real jewels of the plant kingdom’: growing heirloom tomatoes

December 14, 2019
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‘The real jewels of the plant kingdom’: growing heirloom tomatoes

As growers of food, we must look for the silver lining during times of increasing environmental discord. This season I’m grateful for the beautiful summer and winter squashes that I harvested very early. I’m grateful for the hardy mango flowers that have clung on in defiance of the drought, which has dropped and dried out most of the early fruit, flowers and leaves from the avocados and guavas. I’m grateful to the Panama passionfruit that continues to thrive despite not being given any water or attention.

It’s the tomatoes that have me most in awe though. They have sent down deep lateral tap roots to search out moisture. They sustain themselves so resourcefully and continue to flourish in this scarcity. Of course we aid them by mulching generously so moisture and nutrients in the soil do not leach out.

They have launched out lovely large leaves like outstretched, rebellious arms to shield their flowers and fruit from the heat and smokiness of the atmosphere. And my heart is lifted by this sight. How can we give in and give up when the tomatoes have not?

Admittedly tomatoes thrive under dry conditions. Too much rain can cause phytophthora and fusarium fungal problems. This year they seem to be doing better than any other season I’ve grown them.

On the farm we have expanded our heirloom and wild tomato program because of their continuous popularity. At last count we have well over 20 varieties,with myriad shapes, colours and growing habits.

Each cultivar has its quirk. Some for instance need to be left alone to go bush, many need us to help them by trellising the vines and culling their suckers. This season they have whispered to me that they need all their suckers on to retain shade and moisture so I will only be trellising.

We plant them alongside companion plants like basils, marigolds and Mexican tarragon interspersed with other legumes and naturally occurring ground covers like purslane. I’d like to think the biodiversity of the terroir around them boosts their vitality, increasing their flavour and nutrient density.

Often what grows together goes harmoniously well on the plate too.

Heirloom tomatoes are still mostly grown in home gardens due to their volatility during handling. The cherry types are easy and forgiving but the beefsteak cultivars need more coaxing and care to get to the ripening stage on the plant. They must weather not only the weather, but also the many pests that try to eat them, making them unmarketable.

That’s where the marigolds and other companion plants come in – to help lure away those insects. Luckily I work with understanding chefs who know that the real jewels of the plant kingdom are the ones with the marks. I find myself repeating to my children often: “If nothing is trying to eat your food, question yourself: is it really food?”

We ripen our tomatoes on the vine; if picked green and under-ripe they will not live up to their full potential for the eater. A tomato grown and picked under perfect conditions has no rival in the savoury fruit kingdom. It is the fresh out-of-the-oven sourdough with freshly churned cultured butter equivalent of the perfect meal. Lucid gem tomatoes growing on Palisa Anderson’s farm. Photograph: Palisa Anderson A sun-kissed lucid gem tomato picked at 5pm and brought in to the kitchen, sliced and enveloped with new season extra virgin olive oil, dusted lightly with grey salt and two grinder turns of freshly cracked pepper is quintessentially heaven to me.

That together with a piece of warm buttered sourdough please! Tomatoes and their companions salad

Serves 2

1 large beefsteak tomato , sliced into chunks
6 cherry type tomatoes , sliced in half
2 medium sized tomatoes , sliced into quarters
1 handful of tender sprigs of young marigold leaves , picked of any woody bits
4 marigold flowers , de-petalled
5 stems of Italian basil , de-leafed keeping the crowns intact
5 tender purslane stems , broken into small segments, the stems are entirely edible and delicious!
2 tbs best quality balsamic vinegar
1 tbs best quality chardonnay vinegar
4 tbs best quality extra virgin olive oil
1.5tbs grey sea salt

Into a large mixing bowl whisk together the last four ingredients on the list until well incorporated. Gently place all the herbs and toss. Then gently, with your hands, add the tomatoes and toss.

Serve on to a platter and scatter the marigold flower petals.

Serve immediately with fresh sourdough or as side to grilled seafood.

This post is curated. All content belongs to original poster at www.theguardian.com

Faruq Hunter http://www.freedomnation.me

Faruq Hunter is the founder of the Freedom Nation, an aspiring international network of smart eco-villages, sustainable farms, homesteads and Fab Labs that serve as self-sustaining communities for pioneering makers and innovators trying to fix the world's greatest problems. For more than two decades, he has travelled and worked in over 80 countries, servicing both the public and private sectors

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