A vine romance: how to grow tomatoes with Mediterranean flavour
19 December 2019
Coming to England from Corfu, Anastasia Miari missed the taste of sunshine infused in each vine-ripened tomato – and she’s not alone. She meets two Sicilian tomato growers with a mission to mimic the flavours of the Mediterranean from their Hertfordshire farm
For as long as I can remember, I have picked tomatoes at home in Corfu with my Greek grandmother, Yiayia. Aged six, off I’d go, barefoot into the soft fertile clay of our garden to sniff out the juiciest tomatoes for lunch. I took my job seriously. Lifting up the vines, I’d breathe in their verdant summer scent, hover, eye-level with each ripe fruit, picking the plumpest of red baubles in anticipation of the sweet citric flavour.
As is commonplace with Greek grandmothers, Yiayia was in constant competition with my English mother. As I dragged my bag of salad swag into the whitewashed kitchen she would loudly proclaim: “We have the real tomatoes here – you don’t get tomatoes like this in England.”
Good tomatoes taste of sunshine. They have the sweetness of a summer fling – a brief moment of brightness that, if fleeting, leaves a lasting memory nonetheless. They are the symbol of a Mediterranean summer. Planted in May and watered, lovingly and with diligence, through to August and the autumn months, they take on the very essence of summer. Postbox-red fruits ripen on sturdy vines. If I were to ascribe the colour green with a scent, it would be that of the tomato vines in my grandmother’s garden.
Even after we moved to the UK, we observed tomato growing season, my dad and I taking years of trial and error in our greenhouse as the heavens pounded the glass of its warm, earthy confines. “You need to really work for good-tasting tomatoes,” Yiayia’s words echo as we eventually reaped the fruits of our labour – not as bounteous as Corfu but satisfying nonetheless.
It is an experience echoed by Sicilian growers Joe Colletti and Sam Cannatella, whose fathers came to the UK from their native Italy in 1959. Setting up in Hertfordshire, they founded Glinwell, tomato supplier to Tesco for more than four decades – and still a family-run business.
“Our fathers grew tomatoes just to survive in the post-war years,” says Cannatella. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even sell their tomatoes, they’d trade them for a sack of potatoes or a few aubergines. It was hard in Sicily, so they came to England and started from there,” adds Colletti.
While business might have been better in the UK, the climate can be less favourable …
“We don’t have as much sunlight here in the Lea valley as we do in Italy,” laughs Colletti, “but as foodies from a real Sicilian family, we like to think we grow tomatoes as they are grown in Italy.”
This starts with respecting nature’s work. Mediterranean tomatoes grow to different shapes and sizes, with gradients of yellow and orange and the odd spot – what might be considered an anomaly is welcomed. Similarly, instead of using pesticides, Glinwell uses biological control (introducing “good” insects that will eat the “bad” ones) for pest control. They also select hardier tomato varieties that are better able to naturally withstand disease.
Glinwell’s enduring relationship with Tesco has allowed them to commit to planet-friendly operations with vigour: “We’ve agreed with Tesco to cut our waste by half,” says Colletti, “reducing packaging and water waste.” This forms part of Tesco’s own commitment that no food safe to eat goes to waste.
The supermarket helped Glinwell invest in their operations: introducing state-of-the-art glasshouses with hydroponic technology, which delivers precisely the amount of CO2, water and nutrients the tomatoes need, and helps Glinwell emulate the warmer Mediterranean climes needed to grow Sicilian-style tomatoes, here.
In Mediterranean cuisine, the tomato takes centre stage. They were the staple of my secondary school years, the flavours of Greece exploding out of a Tupperware box in Blackpool. Similarly, a bacon sandwich only works without ketchup when accompanied by zesty tomato – a burst of freshness to cut through the sharp saltiness. The tomato in a BLT, as in a burger or bowl of pasta, is the redeemer, the hit of goodness in all that hearty indulgence.
To hold its own among these robust tastes, the tomato needs an intensity of flavour itself – which is what Colletti and Cannatella strive for, working constantly to develop new flavours and varieties: “We’re always looking for better-tasting tomatoes – we can’t stand still with one variety.”
They have a dedicated team of growers developing up to 60 varieties of the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes. The best goes to Tesco’s “sensory panel” for further testing. Today, Glinwell grows 15 varieties of speciality tomatoes just for Tesco, in an array of colours and sizes – from small, sweet piccolo and baby plums, perfect for salads, to larger marzanos, primed for sauces.
They can take up to 10 years to develop the best-tasting Mediterranean tomatoes, perfected through years of partnership – not in Italy or in Greece, but here in the UK.
Yiayia may have to swallow her words finally. Or at the very least, a Tesco Finest San Marzano tomato.
“Working with Glinwell for more than 40 years has enabled us to develop new varieties together that are higher quality, taste sweeter and are grown in a more sustainable way,” says Mike Corbett, tomato specialist at Tesco.
It’s a sentiment at the heart of Tesco’s supply chain: that long-standing partnerships enable both supplier and supermarket to innovate, ultimately improving our food and the way it’s grown.
For more on Tesco’s work to improve our food, visit tescoplc.com/sustainability