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


Jean said...

I remember the days when the tomatoes we bought from the greengrocer that delivered to the villages tasted just like real tomatoes.
Nowadays the ones we buy from Most supermarkets are quite tasteless and, as the man said, not worth asking for.

I don't think the consumer is to blame. Most people would like a tasty tomato rather than a tasteless one, but they are no longer available, unless you can grow them yourself or blag them from someone else who grows them.

The con does not surprise me. Supermarkets and the food industry in general have no scruples or conscience.

Tim said...

In a way, consumers have allowed themselves to be conned. Real Coeur de Boeuf at 1€58 a kilo? Get away. I remember tomatoes as a luxury when I was a child, to be dealt out to the family in microtomed fine slices. Today, funny coloured and shaped tomatoes are fashionable. Back then, a tomato was red and spherical, and Italian plum tomatoes were exotic unless turned out of a tin and served hot with a full English breakfast.

Ken Broadhurst said...

What a luxury it is not to have to buy tomatoes at the supermarket. We can grow them well here most years (damp, cool summers do spoil the crop some years, however) and we just do without tomatoes, except the ones in cans, when we don't have our own. Again, it's quite a luxury. When I was growing up in N.C., my mother grew the most delicious tomatoes in her vegetable garden. The climate over there was perfect for them — sunny, hot, and humid.

Pollygarter said...

It certainly is a luxury Ken! That's another point about saving seeds: you are selecting plants that grow well in your locality. Give some to someone else, different soil, different weather, whatever, means they don't work so well. There are varieties for N.C. and varieties for Norway!

Carolyn said...

Very interesting and useful article. Thanks for translating.

It's discouraging that varieties that have been a byword for good flavor have been tweaked to make them better for the grower or supermarket but not for those of us at the table, forks at the ready.

Whether you're growing for a market or for your own kitchen, you need to have a trusted source for seeds. When I was a more active gardener there were only a few US seed catalogs I could count on to supply organic, non-GMO seeds.

Pollygarter said...

Carolyn, we're really lucky to have organisations like Kokopelli over here. I don't think the constructors of GM Organisms would go for the home gardener market, there's no money in it. There are lots of small organisations now selling seeds, like the one-woman operation Nicky's Seeds which I heartily recommend. Chase Organics have gone too far in my opinion in selling F1 hybrid Rarity as equivalent to Crown Prince.