My travel companions suggested it’s the sun. While just escaping Provincial rays under a pregnant pear tree and stuffing our bouches with sweet cherry tomato tart which is rapidly cooling despite the summer heat, it’s easy to think it’s something simple, and natural.
Something as mother-earthly as terroir – a sense of place that combines the effects of geology, geography, climate and traditional minimal human interaction. Something that involves the incessant summer sun in Southern France, the constant underground water that keeps the area perpetually green despite the aforementioned sun. Something that also includes the soil, the undulating land, the whistling Mistral wind. Something that also requires traditional farming methods – not all of them of course, there’s no serfs and peasants since the revolution. We don’t need hand plowing and donkey carts, but something that includes a human connection to a smaller piece of land, fruit that is harvested when nearly ripe, lines that are passed over continually to take only the fruit that is blushing, fruit that is placed in wooden crates lined with straw and taken to market the next day.
But that’s not the only reason that French tomatoes, and further afield to similar production zones like Italy and parts of Spain and Morocco, taste so utterly fabulous. The real reason is comparison. French tomatoes taste so good because others taste so… well not bad, exactly, just a bit… blah.
The scientific explanation is a lack of umami. Umami is one of the five components of taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It’s that one that’s hard to put your finger on – something that is savoury, mouth-filling, salivating, associated with a meaty taste, but not the taste of meat. It’s a glutamate, and can be manufactured (MSG). Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the highest sources of umami of all foods (246 mg/100g naturally occurring glutamate). This naturally occurring glutamate is an amino acid transferred from the plant to the fruit during ripening.
It’s because they are not truly ripe.
Tomatoes we buy in shops have been picked green and hard (it’s been done this way for many, many years). They are then brought as close as possible to the final sale point before being artificially ripened with ethylene — a colorless, flammable gas (C2H4) derived from petroleum. Green tomatoes can keep for longer in this state, and so when the stock is required to be red, they give it a quick blast in the gas chamber, and out it comes, firm, flushed and fresh for sale. Now ethylene is not a harmful thing – it occurs naturally during ripening anyway. If you take unripe home-grown tomatoes off the vine and put them in a paper bag, they will ripen faster than if they are left in the open. This is because naturally occurring ethylene is not being diluted whilst it’s wrapped in the bag. The big problem with artificial ripening is that it’s happening away from the rest of the plant.
I know from my studies in wine that carbohydrates come from the leaves and the roots. These are the funnels for energy and fuel from the sun and the soil, and are attached to the trunk and branches, which are the veins that feed all the sugars through gradually until you have a sweet grape ready for picking. If winemakers picked off the grape bunches at veraison (this is when they start to colour) and let them ripen elsewhere, the sugars simply wouldn’t get in the fruit. I mean sure, the grapes would eventually go soft, and there would probably be a chemical reaction inside the grapes that would change the sugars inside into something more palatable, but they definitely wouldn’t get all the sugar and flavour they need to produce a good wine. It’s like amputating a limb and expecting it to walk on its own.
Tomatoes are very similar, and all these sugars and flavour are present in the leaves until quite late in the ripening process. You take a unripe tomato away from the rest of its body and you can make it red, but you can never truly make it ripe. Next time you pass a tomato bush, pick a leaf, crumple it between your fingers and smell. It smells like a leaf and a ripe tomato, and that’s exactly what it is.
There are other reasons why tomatoes are not so crash-hot in modern stores.
- Firstly, it’s demand. We want tomatoes all year round. Now in Dubai, this is not actually an incredibly difficult prospect – we get summer sun in winter, and several tomato harvests a year. But in the rest of the world, this is impossible without a hell of a lot of food miles, or some trickery with the growing process. If you want good tomatoes, buy them in season, and preserve the rest (once cooked, tomatoes keep well and hold their flavour). If you want red tomatoes in winter, you’re contributing to greenhouse gasses, genetic modification and bland fruit.
- Varieties and production. Because of demand, growers over generations have moved towards a tomato that can be picked green, artificially ripened on demand, and has a uniform shape and colour. It’s not necessarily the final consumer’s demand, but the store-keepers. They don’t want nice-tasting squishy fruit that looks weird and goes off before they can sell it. Interestingly enough, it appears this natural selection of varieties by farmers has, over the last 70 years, actually contributed to a genetic mutation that has deactivated a gene in tomatoes that is responsible for flavour (read the New Science Mag article linked below in references). Also, over the last 40 years, the average tomato has tripled in size. These mutant giants have the flavour diluted over the greater volume of fruit. On top of this, yields have doubled in the last 20 years. Same amount of land, twice the number of tomatoes – so what does this mean for flavour and nutrients that come from the soil?
- Temperature. As soon as temperature goes under around 10ºC, a tomato stops ripening, but also the flavour enzymes are arrested permanently. Refrigeration is umami death to tomatoes. And where do you often find tomatoes in store? In the refrigerated produce cabinet. And where do we put them when we get home? In the crisper, in a rot-preventing, flavour stifling 3ºC.
Let’s not be so naive to believe that the pretty tomatoes in provincial markets have seen none of the influences as above (although artificial ripening is frowned upon in the EU, and I see many traditional varieties that are unavailable elsewhere), but from several years of experience, I can tell you that it’s a darn sight easier to find a tomato that tastes like a tomato in this area. Many reasons are wrapped up in the suite of terroir features as mentioned in the second paragraph.
But it’s more than just basic terroir. It’s a continuing respect of nature that I find in France that I see little elsewhere. Where else will you find dark toilets in restaurants, because everyone knows to switch the lights off when you don’t need them? Where do you find weekly markets in even the smallest and most remote towns, where even least domesticated humans understand what is in season? Where else do you see a procession of people who dance like rats to the piper to the boulangerie each morning for the daily baguette? Where were there farmers’ markets before the rest of the world called them “farmers’ markets”? Where do people scoff at the word “organic” because to them, that is a word that just refers to normal, everyday food?
Hopefully there’s more places than the one I’m sitting in now, but I doubt you’d be able to count them on two hands. So for everyone, who like me, occasionally has to face those rows of mutant uniform red cardboard things that have assumed the guise of my favourite thing to eat, here are some tricks to getting the best out of your tomatoes:
- Grow your own and pick them when they are red. Choose traditional and heirloom varieties. Cherry and plum types are usually the richest in flavour.
- Failing that, buy vine-ripened tomatoes, but think first and ask questions: How do they get vine-ripe tomatoes to the supermarket without them squishing? Some bunches of tomatoes have been snipped from the plant with a section of stem attached, and then been allowed to ripen artificially. They look pretty, but are just the same as all the others. Otherwise it might be a GMO. For example, the Flavr Savr tomato has been designed to ripen on the vine without softening. Flavour, but at what cost?
- Consider buying tinned/canned tomatoes. Some are excellent, particularly Italian ones. Look for the ones with no added citric acid for a more natural flavour.
- Store tomatoes properly. Don’t ever let them go under 10ºC. Keep them on the bench, covered with a net to prevent insect infestation, but not with something that cannot let the naturally occurring ethylene escape, as this will cause them to rot faster.
- Don’t discard the seeds and the goopy bits – they contain far more flavour than the flesh.
- When cooking, add the stalk and pull it out later – there is still plenty of flavour and natural sugar in there. Same goes for the skin – remove it later if you can.
- If you can’t buy vine-ripened, then the only way to make artificially ripened tomatoes taste even close to the real thing is to cook them with added sugar and MSG (or other form of glutamate more natural – find more at the Umami Information site Umami Rich Foods). Glutamates are part of the flavour compounds that make up the missing umami, and this is really the only way that we can assist in the kitchen. Of course, it’s much healthier just to eat naturally ripened tomatoes, and I’m not getting into a discussion about MSG here – just saying that this is a solution to taste issues – It’s your choice if you decide to do it.
Next post, some inspired tomato recipes from my last week or so in Provence…
- Catalytic Generators Ethylene (C2H4)
- The Transgenic Tomato – Timothy Rockey
- Chemistry World – Secret of tasty tomatoes revealed
- Wall Street Journal – They Say Tomato. We Say Tasteless. Ian Berry
- How tomatoes lost their taste – New Science Mag. by Kai Kupferschmidt
- Uniform ripening Encodes a Golden 2-like Transcription Factor Regulating Tomato Fruit Chloroplast Development – Sciencemag.org
- Umami – the beautiful taste. Jon Rowley
- Umami – The Fifth Primary Taste. buedelmeatup.com
- Umami Information Center – The umami of vegetables (tomato and tomato sauce) and Umami Rich Foods