Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The critic, the chef and the fake tomatoes - Part 1

Part 1: the critic

We first became hooked on tomato growing when we discovered that tomatoes that tasted of something still existed. We joined the West Yorkshire Organic Group and went to their annual show, where we met Terry Marshall. This quiet man is a world acknowledged expert on tomato growing. He operates from a couple of allotments in Bingley, West Yorkshire. Every year at the WYOG show he organises a selection of varieties for a taste test. Terry introduced us to varieties we have grown ever since, including Sungold (yellow cherry), Vanessa (looks like a supermarket tomato, tastes excellent) and... a huge lumpy tomato variously called Oxheart in English, Cuor di Bue (Italian), or Coeur de Boeuf (French). That's not the "hearts and flowers" heart shape, but more like an animal heart.

A selection of our produce, September 2012.

Tim's photo includes tomato varieties clockwise from top left: Oxheart, (a melon, three Rond de Nice courgettes), Carorich F1, Green Zebra, Sungold F1 and Nectar F1 cherry, Ananas, Lemon Boy F1 and finally Vanessa F1.

The typical Oxheart shape, blotches, cracked skin and all. The flesh is pink, not red.

This year we are growing twenty varieties, five of which are F1 hybrids, and seventy plants in all. Of these, we raised 17 varieties from seed, bought one plant (Lemon Boy, because we had no seed) at a Bricomarché which we turned into seven plants via cuttings, and gained two more (Russe and Yellow Pear) at a plant swap. Oxheart/Cuor di Bue/Coeur de Boeuf is still with us, though I had to replace the ageing packet from Seeds of Italy with fresh seed from Graines Baumaux.
Baumaux presently has 254 tomato offerings on its web site, including numerous "collection" types.

If you go to a local vide grenier much after mid July, you will encounter stalls with baskets of tomatoes for sale. Often these have the characteristic appearance of Oxheart. Many people save the seed year after year, selecting their best specimens, and subtle variations and cross-fertilisations develop which differentiate the original stock into, effectively, new varieties, unregistered and undocumented. Sometimes a seed supplier may collect one of these country varieties, clean it up of viruses, name it (e.g. "Cyril's Choice") and begin to sell it. The seed libraries such as Garden Organic are responsible for reintroduction of many old varieties.

Over the last couple of years we have seen displays of tomatoes labelled Coeur de Boeuf in the supermarkets, retailing at two or three times the price of their ordinary tomatoes. These look more like coin purses than hearts, and are ribbed around the shoulder, like an Italian variety called Liguria. Maybe we should have noticed their rather suspicious uniformity.

Not as pricey as they were, for some reason. And the flesh is red, not pink.

Lately they were joined by airbrushed Ananas (Pineapple), Noire de Crimée (Black Krim) and Green Zebra, all varieties that we have grown for some years. We bought some, but were disappointed by the flavour. The reason? They aren't what we think they are. They have been developed by commercial seed merchants, part of the enormous agribusiness complexes such as Syngenta and Monsanto, for productivity, uniformity, consistency of supply and suitability for mass (hydroponic) growing. They were denounced by gastronomic critic Périco Légasse who made the front page of La Nouvelle Republique on 10th July 2014 with his views (and those of his interviewer, Cristophe Colinet).

Périco Légasse, from his blog

What follows is my translation of the article, Tomates : Périco Légasse met les pieds dans le plat. All the views expressed in the article are those of the interviewer and interviewee, and are not necessarily those of the author of this post. If I have mistranslated or misrepresented anything, it's my fault. Unfortunately the pun in the title is lost in translation.

Périco Légasse sticks his oar in

For Périco Légasse, it is urgent that consumers regain their respect for the seasonality of produce.

Scandal in the juicy tomato market:  fake old varieties are flourishing out of season with a marketing and agrochemical sauce.

In the weekly Marianne of 19th October 2013, the gastronomy critic Périco Légasse (who also officiates on TV Tours) denounced some trickery: "Very fashionable, but the beautiful striped and ridged tomato that is on sale under the name of coeur de boeuf simply isn't one."

He was right. Worse, the phenomenon has grown to the point that today, 90% of this variety found commercially are counterfeit. The directorate general for competition, consumption and suppression of frauds* tracks this upsurge in counterfeit tomatoes with difficulty.
  • Christophe Collinet: Since you alerted the public to the confidence trick of the fake Oxheart, one can't say how this might be arranged....
Périco Légasse: No. This fashion for named tomato varieties with new shapes and colours was set up to alter the image of tomatoes on a grand scale, hydroponic or under plastic, without soul and without a history, which have occupied the entirety of the shelves of the large retailers for years. At the same time, we have been present at a legitimate return to the tomato which has flavour, the one from our childhood and from the potagers. When you are fortunate enough to be able to compare the real thing with a fake, you wonder how some people dare to call these watery, cotton woolly vegetables tomatoes.
  • Under a ton of vinaigrette?
Yes, that's it : the vendors of vinegar and artificial seasonings have done a good job: for something that has no flavour, they invent absolutely spectacular sauces to correct the tastelessness of the produce.
  • The real tomato is a luxury, then?
It's terrible, but yes : you get what you pay for. What is good in all cases, is the bunch or cherry. For its size, it's sweet and juicy. If one goes for the more traditional, older varieties, yes, they're a luxury item. I see tomatoes in certain rather well off parts of Paris at 14 or 15 € a kilo! I'm thinking of Zebra, Ananas, Noire de Crimée and that notorious Oxheart, which is an absolutely sublime cottage garden tomato when it's from open ground and respectful of the method of production and the season, unlike its counterfeits. It's a catastrophe for those who have never been able to taste the real thing, and therefore believe that that's all there is to a tomato.
  • Who's to blame: seedsmen, producers, public pressure, consumers?
It's all a system which has got the masses used to an amnesia of the original taste of produce, but I insist on the responsibility of consumers who want tomatoes all year and not too expensive, which maintains agro-industry.
  • Mankind forgets nature and consumers forget seasonality?
Obviously! Asparagus, it's from April to June and when there is no more, it's not worth the trouble to ask for it! The seasonality of fruits and vegetables must be reintroduced and the tomato is the perfect symbol of this : it's the most sensitive fruit to its season. Seasonality is the basic rule of durable consumption with a human face : respect for the weather, for the environment, for the terroir, for transport. The system of a society of overconsumption must be forgotten, if not, the planet will finally explode.
To go further: Commentary by Christophe Colinet

"The sorcerers' apprentices of the market garden"

The fraud is not limited to Oxheart tomatoes. Other counterfeits are arriving which imitate the varieties Ananas, Noire de Crimée, Green Zebra.... You can't talk of genetically modified organisms in the strict sense. These fake "old fashioned tomatoes" are hybrids, crossings of tomatoes of old varieties with other highly productive varieties (the ovule of a plant is fertilised by the pollen of another while in an OGM, one or several genes of one species are introduced into another, without going through cross-fertilisation).

They are cultivated by the producers thanks to the manipulations of the seedsmen like Saveol, De Ruyter or Syngenta. The researchers of this agrochemical giant, in their Seeds Syngenta centre in the Vaucluse, also develop peppers resistant to disease or tomatoes which do not go off. The genetic crosses which allow development of new "better performing" varieties. These hybrid varieties have a yield five or six times greater per hectare.

Less taste and more toxic

Clearly (it's the Monsanto recipe) you can forget the idea of keeping the seeds from your fruit to sow the next year -  these seeds only give one prolific generation. And, to crown the good news, stuffed with water and pesticides, the fruit and vegetables produced from hybrid seeds have less taste and are more toxic. Enjoy your meal.


  • For about fifteen years, the tomato, second most consumed product on the fresh vegetable shelves behind the potato, has been at the heart of a bloody commercial battle accompanied by numerous marketing strategies as much underhand as aggressive.
  • Today in France each inhabitant consumes more than 14 kg of tomatoes per year 
  • The tomato market is worth almost 1.3 billion euros and the major retailers obtain between 6% and 10 % of their sales of fresh vegetables from tomatoes.
  • The directorate general for competition, consumption and suppression of frauds* has established fines for seeds, producers and vendors of fake Oxheart tomatoes.
*La direction générale de la concurrence, de consommation et de la répression des fraudes
That is the end of the NR article and of Part 1 of this entry. I would like to say that our F1 hybrid tomatoes are no more stuffed with water and pesticides than the open-pollinated hybrids that make up the rest of our collection. I just thought I'd end with this statement, taken directly from the Syngenta Vegetables web site, which sums up rather well the forces creating the situation in which the French market in luxury tomatoes finds itself.
"Global production of vegetables is valued at $500 billion and continues to grow, driven by consumer demand for fresh produce. Technology is playing an increasing role in meeting multiple requirements that go beyond consumer priorities of taste and convenience. Vegetable growers focus on yield, cost and resistance to disease, while retailers demand attractive appearance, consistency of supply and long shelf life."

There's nothing like the real thing - Oxheart in potentio

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Sturm und Drang

The thunderstorm at 5am on Monday morning brought hail, tremendous blasts of wind and horizontal rain. We were really fortunate in that the hailstones that hit us can only have been Malteser sized and few in number. It sounded like someone throwing buckets of shingle against the front door, amid the hissing of the wind in the trees. A burst of hail seemed to coincide with a flash of lightning.

Forewarned by the Meteo. cars and cats were under cover, indeed Baron the big tough black cat was under the bed. Friends in Charnizay 10km to the east along the Aigronne valley had hailstones (grêlons) up to 6cm across. In La Nouvelle République, our former neighbour Patrick Martin reported on the destruction caused by egg-sized hailstones in the pretty commune of Chambon in the Creuse valley, only 9km to our southwest, where about a hundred roofs - 60% of habitations - sustained damage and the church windows were broken. Goodness knows what damage it did to the flowers, or the lovely potager between the village and the D750 Descartes - Le Blanc road.

Here, the hailstones were of a size and speed to cut holes in the tender leaves of young tomatillo and pepper plants.

Tomatillos - both plants have taken direct hits but are still flowering
This is the first time we've tried growing tomatillos here. In Leeds they seeded themselves everywhere. The fruit of the tomatillo comes wrapped in a little paper handkerchief, not unlike its close relative the physalis. The variety is "Purple de Milpa" and the fruit goes from purple to gold-green when ripe. I'm not over keen on the taste, but they're rather fun.

Dedo de Mocha - Dead Men's Fingers
These peppers are a Sweet Ajo chilli, a variety new to us. Ajos are normally incredibly hot, but this one is reputed to develop only a slight degree of heat at the end of the season. They also overwinter successfully (indoors) and produce stacks of fruit in the second and even third year. It looks like one hailstone sliced its way through two leaves, on the left of this plant. A hailstone also slashed through both layers of our plastic greenhouse - not difficult, a hard stare could reduce the cover to a pile of dust...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Here's to Jerry

Until a month ago, we said we had two and a half cats. There were the two, brother and sister, that came with us from the UK. And then there was Jerry.

Jerry in his prime
We first met him before we moved in permanently, when he came out of the cornfield next door, miaowing loudly, to throw himself at my feet and wriggle with joy at a friendly voice. I thought at the time that he responded to English words. He was thin and neglected, but it would not have been fair to take him in only to chuck him out again when we went back to England.

We saw him again not long after, in a terrible state. He was holding one back leg out awkwardly, and his left eye was full of blood. We couldn't get near him.

He was a terrible fighter - you should see the other guy

Then after the big move we began to see more of him. We called him Abri, short for abricot after the colour of his fur and because he liked being in a warm shelter (abri) from the weather. Baron and RonRon accepted him with surprisingly little rancour, and he began to come in for regular meals. He was escorted outside at night, though, and slept in the barn. We treated his parasites, tended his frequent wounds, and made a fuss of him, which he loved. From the start he was the most amiable, easy-going cat. Slowly he grew from a skinny feral moggy to a fine-looking tom with a splendid ruff.

He had two shotgun pellets under the skin, one on his back and one on a foreleg near the elbow. How he got those goodness knows, but he must have been a good long way from the shooter, and he probably wasn't the target. Much closer and either pellet would have crippled him.

He spent much of the day asleep, preferably with company

Winter came, and we hadn't the heart to kick him out into freezing temperatures. After a few accidents he started using the litter tray, and apart from the bad habit of spraying he was becoming a house cat. He was particularly fond of the underfloor heating, even more when there was a rug to lie on.

My last picture of Jerry, taken in April

It was only when talking to Alex and Nicole about cats in general and particular that we worked out that he was originally their cat, one of two brothers named Tom and Jerry. While they were kittens things were fine, except that Nicole and their daughters were allergic to them. Then they grew up, there was an immense fight and Tom drove his brother out. That may be what you get if you name a cat after a mouse. Anyway, we called him Jerry after that.

Alex told us that the kittens were never house cats, and weren't taught to use a litter tray. Jerry had learned that by himself, by watching the others and finding they didn't get yelled at if they did their business in the tray. In return, Baron learned that widdling outdoors was allowed. He was a proficient hunter - once we saw him with a water vole in his mouth - but he was content to clear up Baron's prey after that picky animal had taken the choice bits. He would eat anything  in the catfood line, which gave us the chance to dispose of tins that our two had taken an aversion to.

You may notice that we are referring to Jerry in the past tense. We haven't seen him since Easter. He often used to vanish for up to four days, and come back looking battered or smug or both. These disappearances often coincided with long bank holiday weekends, or ponts. We have speculated as to what happened to him - he could have been run over, or shut in an outhouse of a second  home, or a new admirer may have taken him back to Paris with them. We'd love to see his teddybear face at the front door first thing in the morning as usual, but we don't hold out much hope now.

Here's to you Jerry, in this world or the next. It was nice knowing you, and we miss you - all four of us.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Tim has a new dancing partner

From last autumn up to about three weeks ago, the ground in our potager was too wet to dig. We had a week of perfect digging conditions. Then suddenly it all baked into a layer of concrete. We struggled to put in the first two rows of potatoes, then I realised that we weren't going to make it without help. Tim later confessed to being about to give up on potatoes altogether.

So I ordered a Mantis Tiller gardening package from Mantis France.

From the Mantis website... on ideal soil... it is an advert
A phone call of confirmation from a lady with the clearest French telephone voice I have ever heard indicated that it would arrive in the following ten days. It turned up the next day. The day after that Tim finished assembling it. Alex Crawford appeared just at the point where Tim was about to try it out. He started the engine, engaged the drive - nothing. The manual was no help. Alex went home, leaving Tim in high dudgeon, but returned a few minutes later with the answer. There was a gap between the clutch case on the engine and the worm gear housing, a known problem easily fixed (apparently). The intrepid engineers applied the fix, and hey, ho and away we go! Many thanks, Alex!

The Mantis will cultivate soil, and till it, and dig furrows, earth up potatoes, dig planting holes, strip turf, mulch weeds...  It's just a matter of changing the tines and attachments around. The remaining potatoes were planted in three sessions, and Tim cultivated and tilled five other beds in between so I could start planting. The "Gardening package" consists of the Tiller, kickstand, Planter Attachment and Plough Attachment. Yes, it cost quite a lot of money, but it has transformed our gardening.
Mostly, it spits out stones and even quite large rocks. If the stone is a certain size, however, it jams in the tines. You have to turn the machine on its back and wallop the rock until it comes out.

The Mantis is on Tim's left (upside down)
Tim suggests that the manufacturers have missed a trick - a kit consisting of a mallet and a billet of wood, for knocking out rocks...

Wallop! Ting!!
 Across the field we can now see the houses of Moulin de Chevarnay, and a fine weeping willow, rather than an enormous hedge. A much better view!

[Personally, I don't regard "Attilla the Mantis" as a new dancing partner...
she's far too reluctant... I have to drag her around... she wants to go forwards when I want to go back... Tim]

The Mantis tiller works best by being dragged backward through the soil...
doing a "Jim" in our allotment parlance.
Jim was an elderly... even by allotment standards... gentleman who waged war on weeds.
We always wondered how he managed to keep the soil loose between his rows.
Never a footprint!!

He was an early bird...
and was never there when we were...
but we suspected he hovered....
until we actually saw him in action one morning and all was revealed...
he dug or hoed backwards... thus never setting foot on freshly turned soil...
The Mantis works the same way...