Chefs and plant breeders met recently to taste tomatoes from The Beautifully Promiscuous & Tasty Tomato Project. The goal of the project is to develop sweet, fruity, aromatic, and wonderful-tasting tomatoes that are 100 percent out-crossing.
When tomatoes were domesticated long ago, 95 percent of the available genetics were left in the wild and are thus not available in domestic tomatoes. Domestic ones generally have small, closed flowers that pollinators don’t find attractive. Heirloom seed savers mostly select against cross-pollination, and therefore current domestic tomatoes tend to be highly inbred.
While searching for tomatoes that are more out-crossing, we acquired seeds from the wild species Solanum habrochaites and Solanum pennellii. They have huge flowers, female parts that are highly exposed to rub against a bee’s belly, and male parts that shed pollen prolifically. These beauties are 100 percent out-crossing.
We used pollen from the wild tomatoes to pollinate the domestic tomatoes. (The cross doesn’t work in the other direction.) We were startled, in the second generation, when a tremendous diversity of flavors and aromas showed up in the fruits, flavors that are highly desirable to primate taste buds. Since only 5 percent of the wild genetics made it into domestic tomatoes, there are likely twenty times more flavors available in the wild species than in our current domestic varieties.
A year ago, I shared these fruits with chefs via overnight express; they were enamored of the flavors, and devoted staff and resources to advance the project’s goals. This fall, plant breeders and chefs gathered at my farm to taste the fruits of our collaboration.
The winner of the taste testing was described as:
- “Tropical yum”
- “Mango XXX good”
- “Yellow pear”
One of the least favored fruits was described as:
- “Sour, acidic, funky, yuck”
- “Acidic, astringent, slightly bitter”
- “Lime tomato”
- “Very velvety texture, rhubarb, celeriac”
A wide diversity of textures described by the chefs included:
- “Cucumber skin”
I added an ordinary red, domestic tomato as a control. It received these comments:
- “No. Acidic”
- “Firm skin. Most tomato-like”
(I loved that a chef could taste that it was a domestic tomato.)
I also added fruits from fully wild Solanum habrochaites, which received these comments:
- “Bright. Wet dog”
- “Vegetable flavor, green beans”
- “Flavor musk bomb, nutty aftertaste”
- “Bitter notes, nutty, sour milk, melon, kind of mealy”
Other unusual comments made by the chefs and plant breeders:
- “Sweet. Sea urchin. Please grow next year”
- “Sweet onion”
- “High umami”
The most commonly used favorable description was some variation on “melon/sweet.” On the flip side, the most commonly used unfavorable description was some variation on “tart/bitter.”
Yellow-fruited tomatoes generally got better reviews than the red-fruited or green-fruited ones. That is guiding the project in the direction of culling the red-fruited lines.
This winter, work continues on The Beautifully Promiscuous & Tasty Tomato Project as we grow out another generation, selecting for highly promiscuous flowers and amazing flavors.
The Beautifully Promiscuous & Tasty Tomato Project