Reds: from Russia with love

 

One of the tastiest tomatoes there is was snuck out of Soviet-era Russia and now grows in Dublin, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

GIVEN THE FACT THERE are something like 7,500 different varieties of tomato in cultivation around the world, it’s not that surprising that few gardeners will have heard of one known as ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’. Certainly I hadn’t, up until last week. And yet the flavour of this medium-sized, strawberry pink, cherry-type tomato is one of such supreme, mouth-watering tastiness that once eaten, it will never, ever be forgotten.

Like many of the best plant discoveries, it owes its very existence to a series of chance events and lucky coincidences, beginning in 1989 when the American gardener and professional seed saver Bill McDorman travelled behind the Iron Curtain to Siberia in search of unusual heirloom varieties of tomato cultivated by generations of Russian gardeners.

McDorman’s journey eventually took him to the city of Novosibirsk, and in particular to the Siberian Institute of Horticulture where his request for any seed samples was politely but firmly refused. More than a little downcast, McDorman was just boarding a coach to return home when one of the institute’s scientists, a woman by the name of Galina, tapped on the window and surreptitiously slipped him a package.

“Heart pounding, I simply looked forward pretending nothing had happened,” McDorman wrote some years later, as he described that magical moment. “The bus was filling and everyone seemed caught in the confusion of reclaiming seats and saying good-bye. After several minutes I carefully peeked at the package to find nothing less than a miracle. Neatly arranged and labelled with names, descriptions, small drawings and observations was a stack of news print, cheese cloth and scraps containing the seeds to no less than 50 Siberian tomato varieties. I had the institute’s annual research on tomatoes sitting on my lap.”

Among these tomatoes (all of which were prized for their earliness, tolerance to cold and great flavour) was the seed of a yellow-skinned, long-fruiting, highly productive and very delicious variety which eventually became known as ‘Galina’s Yellow’.

After his return to the US and having sown, grown and saved his own seed of this variety over a number of years, McDorman eventually sold some ‘Galina’s Yellow’ seed to a handful of fellow tomato growers. One of them was a New York professor by the name of Dr Carolyn Male, a passionate tomato breeder who has not only grown thousands of different tomatoes but has even devoted a book to the subject.

After sowing, growing and saving the seed of ‘Galina’s Yellow’ herself for a few seasons, Dr Male noticed something very odd had happened. Or in her own words, “From a genetic point of view I didn’t know what had happened, and still don’t.” Instead of producing yellow cherry tomatoes as ‘Galina’s Yellow’ normally did, Dr Male’s tomato plants were producing red, ivory, salmon and pink fruit. Even the leaves of these plants were different – regular rather than potato-leaved. Dr Male saved the seed of what she deemed to be the best tomato, and then sent it to a friend in Utah who promptly named it ‘Dr Carolyn’ in her honour. The following year it was listed in the catalogue of the Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), a non-profit organisation that promotes and preserves biodiversity by encouraging a network of seedsavers to maintain, document and exchange the seed of thousands of different plants.

Some years later, in 1997, another member of the Seed Savers Exchange sowed seed of ‘Dr Carolyn’ that he’d bought from a small Virginian seed company. Delighted to discover that one of his plants had produced an especially tasty and pink-skinned tomato, he named it ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’. Within less than a decade, the delicious ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’ was commercially available from a small number of specialist seed suppliers, eventually finding its way into the lists of the respected British seed company, The Real Seeds Catalogue ( realseeds.co.uk).

Which is where Dublin-based, tomato obsessed organic gardener Nicky Kyle discovered it this spring. Which is how ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’ ended up growing in one of her two tomato-filled polytunnels this summer, alongside a wonderfully diverse collection of other tomatoes.

That is how, on a visit to Nicky’s garden last week to see how her preparations for Ireland’s first tomato festival (details top left) were advancing, I tasted this extraordinarily tasty tomato and fell in love with it.

I’ll definitely be growing ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’ next summer. From a Siberian dacha’s garden to an Irish polytunnel.

What a very, very strange but wonderful world we live in.

Nicky Kyle's top five tastiest tomatoes

Pantano Romanesco (beefsteak)

Sungold (cherry, F1 hybrid)

Maskotka (dwarf bush)

Ananas Noire (beefsteak)

Rosada (cherry plum)

Totally Terrific Tomato Festival

Organised by Fingal Gardeners Club and GIY Naul, the festival takes place next Sunday, September 2nd, at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. There’ll be competitions on the day for the best varieties, best tomato recipe and best tomato chutney/jam recipe, as well as lectures and a remarkable display of different tomatoes.

“We hope to get people excited about the wonderful tomato varieties that are out there,” says Nicky Kyle ( nickykylegardening.com).

Date for the diary

Fruitlawn Gardens, Abbeyleix, Co Laois open day in aid of Bowel Cancer Awareness. Refreshments and unusual plants for sale. September 2nd, 10am-5pm, €5, children under-12 free, arthurshackleton.com

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