Unfortunately the late May Kea Artisanal group didn’t have the chance to taste our tomatoes. We had a prolonged spring with lots of rain, so until mid-June our tomatoes were tiny and green. Some of them, especially the Black Tula, were not quite ready even for our late June visitors, and the Yellow Pear, which we planted later, have no ripe fruits yet. We love our tomatoes, grown naturally, just with manure.
Manure is a scarce commodity on Kea, and everyone in our neighborhood is well informed of our purchase moves, keeping track of when we bought and from whom –as one neighbor wisely puts it “you can’t hide from God or from your neighbor.” This year, we had to import a huge truckload from the mainland. Everyone watched in sarcastic awe as it was being unloaded by a small crane from the big truck to a smaller one, that would then empty it to its proper place, at the far eastern corner of the garden. To our neighbors such an extravagance seemed plain nuts, as it probably made our vegetables more expensive than the supermarket’s! To us, though, it is essential to have our own produce, one of the reasons we left the city after all… So, we pretend not to hear nasty remarques like “my, and this manure is so fresh, it steams…” Our soil is sandy and very poor, so lots of dung is needed for anything to sprout up. We learned that the hard way when we first started our vegetable garden, some nine years ago.
The other thing our neighbors don’t understand is the vegetable varieties we choose to plant, especially our tomatoes. The four-inch hybrids from the local nursery we planted the first years are basically what everyone on the island plants. But we found the fruit disappointing, big and perfect-looking, yet almost totally tasteless. Even the so-called Kean plums that people here praise were not impressing. So, we turned to heirloom varieties, from seeds which we either buy on line from the U.S. or get from Peliti, a center in the north of Greece that rescues and preserves local vegetable seeds. Although tomatoes arrived here relatively latefrom the Americas, they have had plenty of time to acclimatize, and even develop into several local varieties. What a difference these seeds make! At last we produced delicious tomatoes of various shapes and colors, probably significantly smaller quantities than our fellow islanders, yet far too many for us, plenty to offer to friends and keep lots of frozen pulp for our winter stews. And every day we eat a large bowl of salad with our freshly harvested tomatoes…
We tried to convince our neighbors and friends to also plant from such seeds; we even offered the surplus of the plants we had no space to transplant in our garden. But when we showed them our delicious black plum, the Tula, the Zapotec and small yellow pear-shaped that thrive in our soil, they frowned; some locals didn’t even want to taste them, as if they were infected with some exotic germ! Nevertheless, they admitted that the fruits from the hybrids they planted weren’t particularly tasteful ‘nothing like old-time the tomatoes’ as they remembered from their childhoods; still, they were reluctant to plant something new. How similar, indeed, is our story to the situation in Florida, as Barry Eastabrook so vividly describes in his fascinating bookTomatoland:How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
But what is it that makes even old, tried and tested local varieties almost tasteless? Many factors, we think, but more importantly the way tomatoes are now grown, in ways totally different from the past. In my mother’s childhood, in the 1930ies, irrigation on the dry Cycladic islands was practically impossible. Thus islanders had devised ways to grow their “golden apples” –the first name for tomatoes, a translation from the Italian ‘pomodori’—and all other summer vegetables almost without irrigation. They planted them far apart from one another and once they caught in the ground they stopped watering them. Interestingly enough, the yield must not have been that poor, since Santorini, for example–the epitome of an arid Cycladic island, incomparably drier than Kea–was famous for its delicious small and dense small tomatoes, from which the most delicious and sought after Greek tomato paste was produced. Now everyone uses drip irrigation, often to excess, hence the plentiful yield of flavorless fruit. The only thing that remained from the old ways is the way Keans grow the plants, creating a small heap on one side and encouraging the vines to lay on it, leaving the main stalk exposed. They never shoulder them or stalk them, so they spread out on the ground; probably a good idea that protects the plants from the high Aegean winds.
We did try this way but it was messy, especially since our vegetable patches are small and we don’t have the space for wide rows of plants. Also, our property being in a ravine, is relatively protected from high winds. We stalk our plants, making tepees with three or four thick canes which we erect over the young plants in the shape of a pyramid. As the plants grow, we tie the shoots or roll the sprigs around the canes, expanding the frame, adding more canes vertically or horizontally as the plants thrive. This way they form a green screen leaving harvest corridors on either side. It is much easier to pick the fruit as they hang invitingly in bunches here and there. We also drastically limited the varieties we grow to about five, watering the Kea and Santorini vines much less than the Black Tula, the Yellow Pear and the other imported heirlooms. Our tomatoes have much more flavor this year, and they certainly are more attractive as the beautiful red fruit hangs among the lush foliage, behind our new antique rose bushes and the grape vine that holds the afternoon sun at bay.
Our neighbors may shun them, but we find them simply irresistible!
RECIPE: Tomato and Purslane Relish