Top 10 tomatoes
Eaten raw or roasted: find the perfect tomato for each use
An assortment of tomatoes including ‘Polen’ and ‘Dr Carolyn Pink’. Photograph: Richard Johnston
W hen s omeone asked me recently to name the perfect tomato, my reply was “perfect for what?” By which I meant that some tomatoes are perfect eaten straight from the plant, some as meaty slices with a sprinkling of salt and a dollop of olive oil, others cooked slowly into a thick, flavoursome sauce, or roasted underneath a golden crust of Parmesan and breadcrumbs.
“Perfect for whom?” is the other important question. Do you like your tomatoes cherry-sized and ultra-sweet (ideal for salads, garnishes, roasting) or prefer them as fist-sized, fleshy beefsteaks (great for grilling, stuffing, eating sliced)? Have you the space, time and inclination to grow a glasshouse full of cordon type plants that will need careful staking and nipping out of side shoots, or do you want a dwarf bush variety compact enough to suit a hanging basket? The very best varieties will also have good disease resistance and the ability to crop well in an average Irish summer.
So back to that thorny question of the perfect tomato. Following a poll of gardening friends, I’ve come up with a list of 10 varieties. None of them perfect in everyone’s eyes, but each, in their own way, close to it.
Whichever variety you choose (and my advice is to cover your bets by growing several), sow the seed between now and mid-March, under cover, in heat (21 degrees), and into trays of warm compost. Prick out young seedlings into individual pots and give them the brightest spot you can find, out of the way of cold drafts, and warm enough (18 degrees) so that plants don’t suffer a check to growth. Pot them on again into their final containers once they’re roughly 15-20cm tall. If you plan to move them into an unheated glasshouse/polytunnel, wait until late spring, then harden them off and protect with fleece until night-time temperatures rise above 10 degrees.
Remember to water them regularly, and give a fortnightly potash-rich liquid feed once the first trusses have set. Eat the ripe fruit the way that you like best and then, when you have a minute, please let me know how they tasted.
‘Gardeners Delight’ (AGM): A classic variety and reliable cropper, with flavoursome, tangy, cherry-sized fruits reminiscent of those delicious tomatoes your grandparents once grew.
‘Rosada F1’ (AGM): This heavy-cropping grape/ baby plum modern hybrid variety is prized for its thin-skinned, richly flavoured fruits, but pay careful attention to side-shooting/feeding.
‘Brandywine’: This large fruited, slow-to-mature, beefsteak heritage variety needs a warm, sunny summer to do well, even when grown in a polytunnel/unheated glasshouse. But in a good year, it produces heavy trusses of fleshy, pink-red fruits. A favourite of Dermot Carey, the gardener recently entrusted with restoring chef Richard Corrigan’s walled kitchen garden at Park Lodge in Co Cavan.
‘Pantano Romanesco’: Another vigorous, heritage beefsteak variety that produces intensely flavoured, very large fruits, this versatile variety is a favourite of Dublin-based organic gardener and tomatophile Nicky Kyle. But be very stern when it comes to sideshooting/staking as otherwise it sprawls at an alarming rate.
‘Sungold F1 (AGM)”: Easy-to grow, heavy cropping sweet cherry tomato. Close rivals include ‘Sweet Aperitif’, ‘Suncherry Premium’,‘Piccolo’ and ‘Sunsugar’. This variety produces masses of small golden fruits.
‘Caro Rich’: A great favourite of Cork-based organic gardener Jean Perry of the Glebe Gardens, this is a prolific, delicious heritage variety, with large, golden sweet fruits.
‘Paul Robeson’: Another great favourite of Jean Perry’s. “An amazing tomato – if I could grow only one, then this would be it.” A Russian heirloom variety with large, dusky red fruits and what she describes as “a smoky, earthy flavour with the perfect acid/sweet balance.”
‘Hundreds & Thousands’: The perfect dwarf bush variety for a hanging basket, hugely productive, vigorous and easy to grow, with masses of juicy, sweet cherry-sized fruit throughout the summer.
‘Maskotka’: Another excellent, high-yielding, tasty, dwarf bush variety specially bred for growing in containers, with an abundance of sweet red fruits produced throughout the summer months.
‘Dr Carolyn Pink’: Not especially high-yielding, and tricky to grow, but still the tastiest tomato I’ve ever eaten.
Unless described as a bush variety, all of the above will reach an average height and spread of 2m x 50cm.