Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and thus related to aubergines, peppers and chillies. Originally from South America they were first recorded as being eaten in the United Kingdom in the 1590s.
Technically tomatoes are actually berries and therefore fruit, however for culinary purposes we have become accustomed to thinking of them as vegetables. Talking of customs: The United States Customs Departments also classifies tomatoes as vegetables. Little do they know…
Thinking of them as fruit for a second highlights quite an interesting fact. After bananas, apples and oranges, tomatoes are the fourth most popular fruit in the United Kingdom.
As with most other fruiting plants the naturalised tomato growing season in the UK lasts from June to October. However, if grown under glass this is extended to February to November, with a few growers managing to produce tomatoes year round.
Good things come to those who wait
Greenhouses provide such an efficient environment for tomato growth compared to outside or under plastic that it take five times the area of polythene in Spain to equal UK tomato production from greenhouses.
Of the 150 million tonnes of tomatoes grown in an average year ‘ol Blighty accounts for 75,000 tonnes, contributing to a fifth of all tomatoes sold in the UK and half of summer demand.
From the emergence of the first flower to full ripeness takes 40 – 60 days depending on variety and climatic conditions. Smaller tomatoes such as Cherry ripen fast than larger types. Once ripe they’re hitting supermarket shelves within one to three days. After purchase they should be stored at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator. As a sub-tropical plant they aren’t very thankful of the cold and it actually dulls the flavour of the fruit.
If you’re wondering which are the best tomatoes for the job here’s the low down on the most common types and what they’re good for. (Tip: eating, not resurfacing a driveway)
- Beefsteak: Weighing in as the true heavyweights of tomatoes they have a meaty texture with a subtle flavour. Ideal for grilling or stuffing.
- Salad: The good old British Tom! They’ll do most things but for maximum flavour need to be perfectly ripe.
- Cherry: Sweet and small, they’re what you should be thinking of when someone mentions Italian tomatoes on the vine. Not the cheapest but worth the cost for their superior taste.
- Plum: Most likely to be found in a tin, they’re oval in shape and having very few seeds makes them perfect for sauces or stews.
Of course there’s thousands of other types and colours but sticking with one of those four won’t see you go too far wrong!
If you fancy going Mediterranean for a change then how about trying your tomatoes sun dried? Admittedly winter months aren’t renowned for sun so cut some large tomatoes in half and cover them with equal measures of salt and sugar. Place on a baking sheet and into the oven for around two and a half hours on a low heat until almost all the water has gone. Store in a jar with extra virgin olive oil and some herbs. Simples! Delicious!
All the best, GB