Mario de Pace, Horticulturist at RHS Garden Wisley, picks out his favourite beefsteak tomato varieties, and shares some authentic Italian recipes
The beefsteak tomato is certainly not the most productive or the most attractive and it doesn’t particularly like the trip to the supermarket.
Commercially, it only represents about one percent of total production, compared with nearly fifty percent for the round tomato.
Growing beefsteak tomatoes requires a little more patience, since most varieties will reach optimum size and perfect maturity around 80 days after planting. The reward is in the taste: creamy, juicy, rich tomato flavour!
In my opinion, the best characteristic of beefsteak tomatoes is the complete disregard for uniformity, not only in size or shape and colour, but also as an ingredient in the kitchen. Frequently, I’m asked for the best cultivar of beefsteak tomatoes.
Personally I think that each variety is best suited for a specific recipe.
Summer evenings in Rome tend to be very hot and humid, so the idea of having a hot meal is not very welcome. I grew up eating pomodori col riso, which are baked beefsteak tomatoes stuffed with rice and herbs and usually served cold. The best cultivar for this dish is ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ (see photo, right): enough acidity to contrast the sweetness of the rice and enough water content to leave the rice just al dente.
For a perfect gazpacho, I would choose a heart-shaped cultivar named ‘Corazon’. Smooth-skinned and almost seedless, it is the perfect choice for this wonderful Andalusian recipe. The skin is easily removed by plunging the tomato in boiling water for a minute, virtually leaving 100 percent of the succulent flesh, with enough tomato character to withstand the garlic.
Last year, courtesy of a regular visitor to the Vegetable Garden who gave me a seedling, I had a revelation: a tomato that fulfils its botanical classification. It is so sweet and juicy that I’ve eaten it straight from the plant, just as a fruit. Its name is ‘Orange Queen’. It produces very few seeds and, when peeled and sliced, it could be easily mistaken for a mango. It is an heirloom cultivar, I’ve saved the seeds and this year I’ll be growing it again.
In order to fully appreciate the richness of ‘Pink Brandywine’, all that is needed is two slices of good bread, a pinch of salt, and some olive oil. This potato-leafed cultivar dates back to 1855, and is beautiful to look at - and extremely satisfying to taste and enjoy in the simplest possible preparation. The fruits can reach a very large size and it is advisable to support them individually with a sling.
One of the distinguishing features of a considerable number of beefsteak tomatoes cultivars is that they are ‘ribbed’ - a characteristic inherited from some of the wild species from which they were domesticated. Interestingly, two Italian cultivars bear a similar name but have a different aspect and a different taste. I’ve mentioned earlier ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, which tends to have rather pronounced ribs, costoluto is the Italian word for ribbed, and is slightly acid and not too watery.
By contrast, its cousin ‘Costoluto Genovese’ has a smoother skin and less acidity, but is more watery. It is ideal for a popular peasant dish, panzanella, which is prepared with stale bread, tomato, garlic, fresh mint, a splash of vinegar and a generous amount of olive oil. The diced tomatoes will produce enough juice to soften the bread and the balanced flavour will combine perfectly with the other ingredients. I could write for hours about the versatility of this extremely rewarding crop, but I need to get back to the greenhouse to tend this year's discoveries.
More from the RHS
Watch a video on how to grow tomatoes
RHS advice profile: Tomatoes
RHS Grow Your Own: Tomatoes
RHS recipe: Roast tomatoes