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May 20 2016

Minority Report

Spain is a major player in the tomato industry. But beyond the big business lies a little-known world of traditional tomato varieties, planted and consumed at a local level, with a peerless flavor that sets them apart from the industrial crop. Paul Richardson investigates for Foods from Spain


Spain has a long and fruitful relationship with the tomato. Though not the world’s largest producer (that title goes to China, which produces around 15% of the global total, compared with Spain’s 3%), it is certainly an enthusiastic consumer. It is no exaggeration to say that the tomato represents an irreplaceable part of the diet and lifestyle of the Iberian Peninsula.

In Spanish cuisine, tomatoes are generally used fresh in salads or for cooking, though bottled and canned products such as tomate frito (sauce made from tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil) have always been popular, and the new wave of ready-made pasta sauces, ketchups and the like are making inroads into the local market.

Dishes like gazpacho (southern chilled soup traditionally made with tomato, sweet bell pepper, cucumber and bread, and flavored with garlic and vinegar), salmorejo (cold soup made with tomatoes, bread, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and vinegar) and pisto (a type of ratatouille) would be unthinkable without tomato. Meat, fish and vegetables of all sorts are commonly prepared with tomato, implying the presence of a fresh tomato sauce.

The classic Spanish sofrito (sautéed garlic, onion and tomato in extra virgin olive oil), the base for a multitude of Spanish dishes, generally includes tomato. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Spanish consumption of tomatoes is among the highest of any country in the world, estimated at 17 kg (37 lb) per person per year.

Though Columbus first observed it on his earliest voyages in the New World, it was Hernán Cortés who eventually brought it back from Mexico in 1523. The tomato (from the Aztec word tomatl) was not commonly eaten anywhere in Europe until the 17th century, and the northern countries were particularly suspicious of this strange new fruit.

Since then the tomato has taken the world by storm, becoming the most widely cultivated vegetable species of all. According to the FAO, on a global scale it is grown on a surface area of between 2.5 and 2.9 million ha (6.2-7.2 million acres). A total of 122 million tons (244 billion lb) are consumed each year worldwide. Yet this quantity is made up by a handful of varieties which are not exactly valued for their flavor, but for other properties such as color, resistance to disease, and above all, heavy cropping.

Rare and precious

Spain has a magnificent heritage of traditional tomato varieties, many of which are native to counties. The agricultural cooperative La Verde in the mountains of Cádiz (southern Spain), possessors of the country’s biggest private bank of tomato seeds, currently stocks seeds of about 120 Spanish varieties, though the co-op’s spokesman Manuel Zapata believes that there are more out there–“many, many more”. Exactly how many is hard to say: as Zapata points out, formerly “local” varieties have now spread to other parts of the country, leading to a nearly infinite number of varieties or sub-varieties each with its own set of variables.

One can imagine that these old-fashioned tomatoes, with their incomparably superior flavor, might have a bright future in a market hungry for it. In agricultural terms, however, the situation of these varieties is far from rosy. Large-scale intensive agriculture has no place for the pink tomato of Huesca, to give just one example, whose plantlets require twice as long as commercial varieties to come to maturity.

Muchamiel tomato

The saga of the Muchamiel tomato is a perfect illustration of the challenges, as well as the opportunities, facing traditional tomato varieties in Spain. This variety was once well-known in Spain, and especially highly regarded in the coastal region of Valencia (eastern Spain), from whence it hails. (Mutxamel, or Muchamiel, is a village, now more of a suburb, just outside the city of Alicante.)

Flattish in shape, with deep vertical furrows and a coloring resembling the Raf (to which it is related), tomatoes of this variety can often reach impressive size. Local restaurants specialize in a simple salad, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and salt, for which they charge a high price.

Oddly, given the high regard in which the variety is held locally, it has been allowed to decline almost to the verge of extinction. As a result of a ten-year project at Miguel Hernández University in Alicante, however, new cultivars have been obtained which are much more resistant to viral infections, as well as much higher yielding. The aim now is to get local farmers planting the variety again and begin selling the tomato within a reasonable radius, given that it is picked ripe and has a relatively short shelf life.

In the pink

Other Spanish tomato varieties have fared better in the past and have always been grown and appreciated in their home regions. An example is the pink tomato of Huesca, in the northern part of the region of Aragón. This part of the province, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a long tradition of horticulture inherited from the Arabs, which has never been lost.  The Spanish phrase de toda la vida (since forever) applies to the tomate rosa de Barbastro (pink tomato from Barbastro), cultivated in small plots and traditionally sold in local markets around the province of Huesca. The Asociación de Hortelanos Tradicionales y Amigos de la Huerta del Alto Aragón  is applying for the Aragonese quality seal C’alial for the pink tomato, granted by Aragón’s regional government.

Typically on the large side (a single specimen commonly weighs half a kg / 1 lb), with thin skin, a pinkish color and fleshy interior, the tomate rosa is superbly delicious, its intense flavor making supermarket LSL tomatoes seem like another species altogether. 

Return of the native

One might think the pink tomato a freak, a one-off. In fact, pink tomatoes are found in various parts of Spain: in northern Extremadura, in the province of Córdoba, and in the mountains of Aracena, in Huelva province. The tomate rosado of Aracena (pinkish tomato from Aracena) is currently the object of a unique project, developed under the aegis of the Slow Food movement (an international non-profit organization which seeks to counteract the effects of fast-paced life on eating habits), aimed at promoting this superb and little-known tomato variety.

The tomato can grow up to 750 g (26 oz) a piece; its delicate skin when ripe requires wooden boards to prevent the fruit touching the ground and rotting. But everyone who has tried the pink tomato agrees that, for flavor, few varieties compare. Traditionally eaten fresh or bottled for the winter, the tomate rosado of Aracena forms part of a local dish known as distraído, combining bread, extra virgin olive oil, tomato pulp, and wafer-thin strips of tocino ibérico (Ibérico lard, most likely a by-product of the ham industry centered around Jabugo).

Catalan biodiversity

Parallel stories of rescue from oblivion are to be found all over Spain. An important focus of activity is in Catalonia, where the seed bank Esporus (in Manresa, outside Barcelona) is taking steps to preserve the biodiversity of local crops. Tomato varieties held by the bank include Catalan specialities like Tomacó, Pometa, Palosanto and Bombilla (also known as supositori, which has something to do with its shape!).

Esporus also keeps seeds of the best-known Catalan heritage tomato, the Montserrat, appropriately named after the holy mountain of Catalonia and Our Lady of Montserrat, patroness of Catalonia. This variety has been grown for generations in the comarca of El Vallès, and has always been highly valued by local gastronomes, though beyond the county it is barely known. Despite its top quality, the variety suffered a sharp decline in the 1970s and is only now being planted more widely.

Tomate de Montserrat is the perfect tomato for stuffing and baking. However, it is delicious in salads, and the Reixach sisters at the restaurant Hispania, in Arenys de Mar, serve a simple salad of Montserrat tomato with Figueres onions and mongetes del ganxet (white beans) dressed with Arbequina extra virgin olive oil.

The Raf tomato: an example to follow

Despite the grassroots revival of traditional tomato culture, gourmet varieties account for no more than the merest drop in the ocean of Spanish industrial tomato production. The Raf tomate may just be the exception. Here is a variety that, against all odds, is doing good business in Spain, with consumers paying up to 10 or 15 euros per kg (2.2 lb) for a tomato that is distinctly on the unattractive side, often a curious shade of dark green which looks to the uninitiated as if the tomato is completely unripe.

Its growing season is also unusual: thanks to the mild temperatures of Almería (southeast Spain), its birthplace, the Raf is sold from December to April and may be considered one of the few genuine winter tomatoes. The Raf is a descendant of the French Marmande, not a hybrid but the result of selection by growers over the last half century. The variety has been grown for many years in the Vegas de Almería, and particularly in the towns of La Cañada, Níjar and El Alquián, but was unknown outside the province until the late 1990s.

It is now highly fashionable, can be bought all over Spain, and is much esteemed by gourmets despite its high price.

Back to black

The other great exception to the general rule that Spanish “minority” tomatoes are only consumed in their place of production is the Kumato. Although this variety could not be described either as traditional, heritage or heirloom, it is a curious example of the market’s response to consumers’ demand for a tomato with taste. Known as a “black” tomato, this variety is actually a dark shade of greenish-brown. Its shiny, impeccable, perfectly round appearance might lead you to believe that what we have here is a transgenic tomato.

But this is not the case. The Kumato was developed in the early years of the millennium by a Spanish grower in Aguilas, in the region of Murcia (southeast Spain), working for Syngenta Seeds Europe, which was looking for a variety that would flourish in the saline soils of the southern coast of Spain. (Kumato is a registered trademark of Syngenta, which prefers the name Rosso Bruno for the American market.)

The unique selling point of the Kumato is that it is edible whether ripe or not–and not only is it edible, but surprisingly tasty, with a sweetness and intensity of flavor not found in your average salad tomato.

Spain has a long and fruitful relationship with the tomato. Though not the world’s largest producer (that title goes to China, which produces around 15% of the global total, compared with Spain’s 3%), it is certainly an enthusiastic consumer. It is no exaggeration to say that the tomato represents an irreplaceable part of the diet and lifestyle of the Iberian Peninsula Paul Richardson/©ICEX
Minority Report
Minority Report
Minority Report

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