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Dutch TV programme

"Vine-ripened tomatoes are a very neat sales gimmick"

Last week, the Dutch TV programme, 'Keuringsdienst van Waarde' ('Inspection Service of Value'), focused on the history of tomatoes-on-the-vine. According to this show's producers, these tomatoes are "a sales gimmick". Until the mid-nineties, there was no such thing as vine-ripened tomatoes. Tomatoes have always grown on vines. The presenters were surprised that, in the shops, tomatoes-on-the-vine are sold for significantly higher prices than loose tomatoes. In some cases, these are even the same variety as those sold loose; they are just still on the vine.

Wasserbombe crisis
In the early 90s, there was a stir about the taste of Dutch tomatoes. Especially in Germany, which traditionally imported a significant amount of these tomatoes. German consumers no longer wanted to buy Dutch tomatoes. They found these tomatoes to be tasteless and too watery. The Wasserbombe (Water bombs) crisis ensued. Dutch tomato grower, Ton Janssen of Janssen-Kusters VOF said during the programme, "The Germans were just looking for excuses as to why our tomatoes were no longer good enough. Stories about helicopters spraying poison on Dutch tomatoes were doing the rounds. Utter nonsense, of course."

Back then, Janssen went to Germany to defend Dutch tomatoes. According to him, during the crisis, a third of Dutch tomatoes growers went under. Another Dutch tomatoes grower, Gert-Jan van der Spek of Solyco, also pointed out that in the 90s, the emphasis was on volume, not taste. Dutch tomatoes were, however, not produced any differently than their Belgian or French counterparts. They were also not less tasty than those in neighbouring countries.

From loose to on-the-vine
In reaction to the Water Bombs crisis, tomatoes-on-the-vine were born. At the start of the nineties, tomatoes were harvested while their colour was still too light. This is according to Janssen. This did nothing for their taste. According to him, vine-ripened tomatoes originated in Italy. The Netherlands quickly decided to let the tomatoes hang on the vine for ten days longer. They were then harvested, still on the vine. Previously, tomatoes were picked individually.

The presenters considered this move to be nothing more than a sales gimmick. According to Martijn Eggink of Rijk Zwaan, it did, indeed, make a difference. About 80% of tomatoes are now being sold on the vine. He says, "Tomatoes-on-the-vine look different. They also have a stronger taste. The vine is also a type of freshness indicator." 

Yet, loose tomatoes and those on the vine taste practically the same. This is according to 'Keuringsdienst van Waarde'. Janssen claimed that Germans still buy 60% large, tasteless tomatoes-on-the-vine. This evoked Twitter reactions. Kees Ammerlaan of Agro Research tweeted, "This time, Ton Janssen did the sector and vine-ripened tomatoes of large sizes no favours." Janssen admitted that consumers now have more choice. They can, therefore, opt for tastier tomatoes.

Kees Ammerlaan's reaction
When asked, Kees Ammerlaan said Ton Janssen's statements during the broadcast were not true. He says, "He explicitly named the Germans when it came to eating Water Bombs. The product was, however, also consumed by the Dutch. That is a market-related mistake. Large vine tomatoes can also taste good. With the right fertilisation, even the Merlice variety can taste good. That this is not done at most nurseries is a different story altogether."

The programme draws quite a large audience. Kees Ammerlaan, however, does not think it will affect trade. "In the Netherlands, people mostly follow their own instinct. If the German media picks up on this, it may be a problem." Kees understands what Ton Janssen is trying to say. He does not, however, agree with him. "Not all tomato growers focus on the same market. Even a Merlice grower can choose to cultivate for quality rather than quantity."

Ed Zwinkels' reaction
Ed Zwinkels of Gebr. Zwinkels nursery joined the conversation halfway through the programme. He hopes the show will be received in a mostly favourable light. "Of course, the current situation is much better than it was 25 years ago", he says. "There are improved varieties with better colour and taste. There is something for everyone. I am sorry that, especially toward the end of the show, people were constantly reminded of the term." Ed, himself, cultivates tomatoes-on-the-vine and cocktail tomatoes. "The smaller, the sweeter - that is a given. Some people like how the larger sizes taste. Others prefer cocktail tomatoes. Tastes differ."

Ariën van der Lans' reaction
Ariën van der Lans of Lanstomaten comes to the same conclusion. "The large tomatoes have a subtler taste than the small ones. We all know that. Over the last few years, a lot of work has been done on the taste of tomatoes. That is a good thing. It also explains the difference in price." Ariën found the broadcast to be positive. "It explained things. There may have been parts that were misconstrued but what is really the truth? What I did find was that there was too little emphasis on how large tomatoes are used. They are mainly processed in, for example, pasta sauces. Here all sorts of other flavours are added. Smaller tomatoes are more often used in salads or eaten as-is."

Rewatch the 'Keuringsdienst van Waarde' episode, broadcast at 21:00 on Thursday, 17 May on NPO3, here.

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