19 August 2003
Red, round and tasteless? Not these beauties. Katy Guest enters the murky world of contraband tomatoes and samples the best crop that money can't buy
The dealer wishes to remain anonymous. Not that he's ashamed of his seeds: on the contrary, he's doubts you'll find better in England. Once you've tried their crop, he believes, you'll be hooked. But if he told you how to buy them, he could be prosecuted - and a small businessman like him can ill-afford a £5,000 fine.
He plies his illicit trade in Devon, in a small nursery. He cannot publicise it, for obvious reasons; but word of mouth ensures that a furtive army of enthusiastic users buys his moonshine seeds in their thousands. Many in turn will risk prosecution by growing them and selling their seed themselves. Others, more cautiously, will restrict themselves to "personal use".
The crop in question goes by the exotic name of 'White Princess'. But it is not, as you might suspect, a variety of cannabis. Rather, it is a tomato - a "meltingly, sumptuously tasty" variety, according to the pusher, but a mere tomato none the less. And if that strikes you as surprising, you'll be even more surprised to discover that 'White Princess' are just the tip of the iceberg.
This is a story of the bizarre, seldom-seen subculture of unlicensed vegetable-growing. Its wares include rogue tomatoes, "bad" apples and "hot" potatoes; tomatoes are as good an illustration as any of how the market works.
Most of us buy our tomatoes from supermarkets. They're convenient, but their cool, watery flavour is disappointingly bland. If you're willing to pay double, you can sometimes buy tomatoes that actually taste of something from the supermarkets' posh ranges. But even these are difficult to get excited about.
For those who know where to get their hands on the hard stuff, though, the tomato is an altogether different proposition. Insipid, shop-bought fruits are for losers, but the words 'Tibet Appels', 'Sundrop' and 'Fakel' are whispered by connoisseurs like the names of Pagan goddesses, and just to inhale the scent of a 'Spanish Big Globe' can make grown men weep with pleasure. The only problem with these fat, tangy little balls of perfection is that you, the consumer, just can't have them.
The Plant Varieties and Seeds Act (1964) makes these tomatoes forbidden fruit - well, at least the seeds from which they are grown. According to the act, anyone wanting to sell the seeds of a fruit or vegetable must first register the variety on a National List. Before registration, it must be tested to ensure it is "distinct, uniform and stable", and a fee must be paid. Sadly for amateur growers, these fees add up to nearly £1,000, in the case of tomatoes, plus an annual renewal fee of £185. There are no exceptions, no grants for amateur growers, and it is illegal for anyone to sell the seeds of unregistered fruit or, by implication, the fruit itself.
Even if they can pass the tests (and the variety 'My Girl' is many things, but its fruits - anything between cherry and avocado-sized - could never be called "uniform") the only people who can afford to register them are huge companies that sell to supermarket chains (the familiar comedy-villain Monsanto being one example); the result is that only mass-market, supermarket-friendly varieties are registered. Varieties of interest only to amateurs are ignored, and it becomes illegal to sell them; so, with no growing plants providing seeds for the future, they're simply becoming extinct.
The fruits you see here are the ones that are typical victims of this discrimination. They are too irregular in size, their growing seasons are too leisurely, or their very ugliness is considered too offensive to the imaginary consumer to be profitable. The most delicate, such as the pungent, purple 'Black Prince' and the silken 'Tibet Appel', have skins so diaphanously thin that to container-load them across Britain in articulated lorries would reduce them immediately to ketchup. Other varieties ripen continually all summer long - perfect for the gardener, but not much use to a supermarket grower, who needs to harvest his crop mechanically and simultaneously. Some, such as the gooseberry-like 'Green Zebra' or the pepper-shaped 'My Girl', are just assumed to be too funny-looking for our modest British tastes. So, somewhere in an ivory tower on Planet Sainsbury, the buyers have decided that what British consumers need are bland, uniform spheres that will sit in neat rows under artificial lighting, and taste like water.
Fortunately, for those who prefer their tomatoes a little more, well, tomatoey, there is an alternative to this inexorable slide into strip-lit homogeneity. All over the country, guerrilla bands of disgruntled gardeners are meeting under cover of darkness to exchange or even sell contraband seed. "Gardeners are reasonably law-abiding people," says Bob Flowerdew, the Gardeners' Question Time panellist and author of books about growing vegetables. "But there are ways of getting round the law..."
Some companies in America, for example, are cashing in on our tomato drought. At www.seedfest.co.uk, Kelley Spurling sells seeds of hundreds of varieties that are illegal in Britain from his farm in Oregon. "It would look a bit ridiculous to imprison someone for having the wrong tomatoes," he says. And the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agrees this "raises complex legal issues". But Flowerdew would not encourage buying seeds from abroad: "You just can't monitor it," he says. "If you end up with tobacco mosaic virus on all your plants from seeds you've bought illegally, you can't go back to the person who sold them and complain."
The Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) in Coventry, therefore, is a sanctuary for off-list tomatoes. Its operations are perfectly legal but dedicated to the cultivation of plants whose seed would be, technically, illegal to sell. It works like a sort of vegetable refugee camp, where horticulturalists with an eye to the future will nurture the green, the knobbly and the dispossessed. Hundreds of heritage varieties are grown here in constant rotation. Racks of seeds with names like Thomas Hardy virgins ('Nectar Rose', 'Nova', 'Stupice') are kept in cold storage while, out in the fields, a dozen lucky cousins get their day in the sun. This year, the sweet, beautiful 'Orange Banana' is just beginning to ripen, while vines nearby creak with 'Caro Rich': the Incredible Hulk of tomatoes. Plum-shaped sprays of 'Pink Cherry' hang prettily from their canes among plants that look as if they've been hung with Smarties: the tiny, orangey-flavoured 'Texas Wild'.
While it is illegal to sell unregistered seed, there's nothing to stop the association giving it away. So, for about £20 a year, tomato lovers can access the "Orphans List". The payment entitles them to six free packets of seed and access to a "seed exchange": a sort of Multicoloured Swap Shop for unregistered seeds.
While HDRA struggles to persuade the European Union to write a get-out clause for amateur varieties, seed swaps are a viable way around the regulations. In Brighton this February, the second annual Seedy Sunday drew hundreds of gardeners from all over southern England.
"We're selling seed potatoes for lots of old varieties, as well as some of the unique seeds from the HDRA," says Alan Phillips, the chairman of the Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group. "The idea is from Canada but it's catching on. Lots of other places in Britain are looking at it."
Of course, seed swapping is nothing new. According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the author of the River Cottage cookbooks, gardeners have been at it for ages. "Here in Dorset there's some runner-bean seed that's passed around from the winners of the longest-bean competition," he tells me. "The big seed companies should consider it their cultural obligation to widen the choice of vegetables for amateur gardeners. They can afford to register stuff. They should sell more heritage varieties, instead of the same old same old." Sadly, the magnanimity of the big growers does not always extend to providing gardeners with the seeds of tasty produce or turning a blind eye to small-scale, under-the-counter tomato production. According to Defra, "It is generally an offence to market a variety of seeds not on the National List or EC Common Catalogue." It's fair to say Defra doesn't police the law with much conviction, but the multinationals are always watching. In 1998 a company that illegally marketed grass seed was successfully prosecuted under the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964. It was fined a total of £7,500 and ordered to pay costs of £7,964.
Although cases like this are rare, the threat is enough to discourage most growers. "I'd like to start breeding and selling my own varieties and I think I could do quite well, because of my name as a gardener," says Bob Flowerdew, "but I couldn't afford to register them. I complained to the Ministry about it, and they said, 'Come on, we're not going to prosecute you'. But if I advised something like that in my books or on the radio, I'd be breaking the law. And the law is the law. Particularly if I want to keep my job with the BBC."
Others in the rogue vegetable-growing community are less particular about keeping their noses clean, and may even relish the anti-establishment flavour of their activities. "I do it as a political point," says the anonymous 'White Princess' enthusiast quoted earlier."Genetic erosion is a real threat to biodiversity, and anyway, I'm not competing with the big sellers. I don't think they could object. They're not providing the same service." Luckily, he seems to have hit upon a rare thing: a government official prepared to bend the rules. "I'm a registered seller, so I'm subject to Ministry inspections," he tells me. "The inspector comes round once a year but he turns a blind eye to what I sell. He's a local boy, so he knows how the land lies."
It may be foolhardy and illegal, but subversive farmers like this could be the only thing preventing all our fruits and vegetables going the way of strawberries. "'Elsanta' [the most popular strawberry variety] was developed by men in white coats in the Sixties," explains Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. "It has a long shelf-life and resistance to softening and mould, but there was no thought for flavour. There's some acidity but little aroma. If you compare it with a popular English fruit-cage strawberry like 'Royal Sovereign' it has nothing like the complexity.
But because of its ability to be transported, it dominates 80 per cent of the market." It's the same with apples. "There were once many hundreds, even thousands of British apple varieties. There's no knowing how many have been lost."
But it's not just the staggering superiority of flavour that makes heritage varieties important. Only by continuing to grow them can we discover which varieties might be blight resistant, or grow abundantly in a drought, or turn out to be a miracle cure for cancer. "If we find one of our tomatoes standing up particularly well to these scorching conditions," said Alan Gear, the co-director of the HDRA, from a 40C poly-tunnel on Monday, "that could be incredibly important if predictions of global warming come true." Diversity, in all species, is nature's way of surviving unpredictable disasters.
"We could be damaging the country's future," says Bob Flowerdew. "In 10 to 15 years, the only choice will be between GM Type A and GM Type B. And I'll be walking through London and a shifty bloke in a shop doorway will stop me and hiss, 'Oi, mate... you want some tomatoes?' "