Tomatoes are quintessential summer, either fresh and thickly sliced to eat with just a sprinkle of salt or preserved for our long Canadian winters. I smoke them over alder chips and then freeze them to add another delicious dimension to pasta sauce or stews. I doubt that there is an easier fruit to work with. But before they ever reach the growers or processors that make them into everything from ketchup to juice, there are researchers ensuring that the crop is the very best that it can be.
This past August, long before Warren Buffett pulled the plug and closed the venerable Heinz plant, I spent a day in the sunny fields of the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Research Station and simply talked “tomatoes” with Steve Loewen, Ontario’s soft spoken, brilliant tomato guru…the guy who has released baskets of new varieties, many of them proprietary to companies like Heinz.
In the warm summer sun, it was a tasting extravaganza and I will never, ever look at a tomato the same way again. Although Heinz may be gone from Ontario’s foodscape, this region and particularly Essex & Kent Counties with the sky high heat units, grow the finest tomatoes in the nation. The plants closure – and no one really knows whether it will be sold intact or stripped of the equipment – affects about 40 of Ontario’s 120 growers. Roughly 800 jobs were terminated…the only ones that escaped the cuts were five Heinz Seed tomato breeders. So,while this is an horrendous blow to the community of Leamington, roughly 60% of our tomato industry is still in tact and it’s up to us, as eaters, to support them for all we’re worth.
Tomatoes originated as large weedy plants in South America(at right) but they have been embedded in the food cultures of that continent and of Mexico for so long, it’s not clear where they were actually domesticated. The Spanish took them to Europe adn then they came to North America. What we now call ‘heirloom” actually originated in Europe. “Many heirlooms are poor yielders and that’s partly why they taste so good.” explains Dr. Loewen. “The tomato plant has a lot of leaves to capture energy, to create carbs to feed the roots and the plant along with its new growth… If you have a lot of tomatoes on a plant they will have access to few carbs.”
Ontario’s foremost tomato breeder was Dr. Ernie Kerr who was based at Vineland. Steve is one of his protegées. Like Kerr he believes that tomatoes should have tons of flavour. He, like Kerr did, tastes every single selection. And like Kerr, he is a man with a mission. “As a kid growing up on a tomato farm near Port Rowan, I could see how hard farmers work all season long and their crops could be wiped out by a thunderstorm or hail, in 30 minutes or less…I want to make a difference in whatever way I can and make it a little easier for them.”
The acreage that Steve works is on(above left) a deposit of Brookston Clay, the best soil for tomato cultivation anywhere. His field is dotted with small flags…these are the plants that he and his team will be working with to make new crosses both for growers and processors alike. Every year he releases about 50 breeding lines into the industry although he has over 600 “lines” under development. At the moment there’s a lot of interest in the darker coloured fruits with their healthy dose of anthocyanin, a demonstrated nutraceutical. If the fruit is hidden under the spreading canopy of leaves, he knows he’s going to have to breed it with one that is slightly more upright for easier harvesting. If it’s too tall, he will select another parent that has a shorter architecture. That word ‘architecture’ comes up often in plant breeding as most farmers have to harvest their acreages mechanically.
Lycopene is another nutraceutical that is primarily found embedded in the tomato’s skin. The rich green of chlorophyll changes as the tomato ripens into bright red. (see image at right) The darker the green; the deeper the red and the more lycopene will be present.
So what makes a great processing tomato?
Of course the first is flavour. But there is so much more. It’s best when all the tomatoes ripen at about the same time in the clusters.The tomato has to be ‘jointless‘ so when the mechanical harvester comes along, lifts the plant and shakes it, no stem will remain attached. The colour has to be uniform with no yellow “shoulders” and the stem scar must be small.
The core should be small and when it’s sliced there are some seeds but not a lot of gel. That gel, however, is very important. It’s where it comprises the acidity in the tomato which gives that tomato-flavour.
Finally, the aroma has to be superb.