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
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 themand 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
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
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
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?' " 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 19