The Kumato – the fruit that revolutionised the sex life of the giant Galapagos tortoise

The magical Kumato. (Photograph: Simply Salads.)

TOMATOES are like ageing Labradors. They’re harmless and dependable. They’re always around but do not demand too much attention from anyone. Essentially, dare I propose, tomatoes (and ageing Labradors) can be pretty dull and are very easy to take for granted.

That’s what I thought, until recently, when I discovered the deep brown-green, at times almost black, Kumato, which is now grown in Mpumalanga. Indeed, here’s a species of tomato worth pricking your ears up for.

Besides its markedly darker colour, the Kumato is much sweeter than other species of tomato. It is also firmer, and has a more intense old-fashioned tomato flavour and aroma. But the really juicy thing about the Kumato, I think, is that the fruit is rumoured to have revolutionised the sex life of the giant Galapagos tortoise, which is endemic to nine islands in the Pacific Ocean archipelago.

After a visit to the Ecuadorian islands in 1960, the late Professor Charles Rick – he is widely acknowledged “the world’s foremost authority on tomato genetics” – described the forerunners of Kumatoes as “wild tomatoes growing near the tidelands of the Galapagos Islands, despite salty sprays that would have stunted or killed a domestic tomato plant”.

The professor also observed that, “tortoises eating these tomatoes were mating considerably more than those who didn’t”. For sure, having munched their way through some of the wild fruit, the typically slow-moving reptiles were, he reported, shelling out sexual favours with rabbit-like fervour.

Had he not then focused all his attention on the tomatoes, Professor Rick may also have noted that, not only does the Galapagos tortoise have an inclination towards fruit-fuelled lasciviousness, but it is also the largest living example of its species. What’s more, it has an average life expectancy of 200 years. Are the creature’s impressive proportions and longevity also due to its intake of Komatoes? Although I couldn’t find any hard evidence to support this hypothesis, I think it’s fair to hope that this is possible.

Although he deftly sidesteps the suggestion that he might have introduced the Kumato to South Africa so that we could all enjoy its alleged aphrodisiac properties, Barberton-based commercial fruit and vegetable farmer, Peter Bakker, doesn’t disguise his enthusiasm for the most recent addition to his operation’s Simply Salads range. In fact, he declares – with Galapagos tortoise-type passion – that he is “absolutely in love with it”.

Having sourced seed from the Netherlands, Bakker began growing Kumatoes in the company’s 10-hectare hydroponics facility earlier this year. It is, he says, part of his company’s “ongoing undertaking to introduce innovative new products to the South African market”. That this objective has at least in part been achieved, was confirmed when Bakker collected the Innovation Award for Kumatoes at the 2008 Eat In RMB Private Bank South African Produce Awards in Cape Town.

“Of course, we did our homework before introducing the Komato to South Africa. Even so, we were surprised by how well and quickly the unusual fruit has been received by local consumers,” says Bakker. Simply Salads currently produces between five and ten tons of Kumatoes each week.

With its colour ranging from black, dark brown to golden green, you’d be forgiven – on seeing the fruit for the first time – for questioning its ripeness. To help avoid misinterpretation, the product’s packaging clearly depicts and explains its unique colouring. Packed in fours in a slim, cardboard punnet with a clear plastic sleeve, the local version describes its contents in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa.

“The Komato has a strong flavour and is about 20% sweeter than a standard tomato. Its score on the Brix (sweetness) meter – it scores 5,8 versus 3,5 of a standard tomato – is unprecedented for a tomato of this size. (Small cherry tomatoes score 6 – 7.) The species is also specially juicy with a firm texture. These very pleasing characteristics, it seems, prevail over the fruit’s odd appearance. In fact, foodies are increasingly making the most of the Kumato’s unusual colour by creating interesting looking salads, including multi-coloured tomato salads,” says Bakker, adding that sales of the Komato are as bullish at fruit and vegetable markets as they are at upmarket outlets.

Although it can be eaten and enjoyed at most of its life, the Kumato is best when it is a deep brown colour with hints of green. As the fruit ages, it turns a dark red-brown colour. While it also makes a flavourful ingredient for sauces and soups, Kumato converts say that the fruit is ideal as the primary, uncooked ingredient in salads or appetisers.

“It really is an extraordinary fruit,” says chef, Andrea Foulkes of Cape Town catering company, Dish Food And Social. “I usually avoid uncooked tomatoes because of their acidity, but the Kumato is an exception. It has a sweet, gentle flavour, is very juicy and has a superbly firm texture. Because of its unique flavour, it is simple to prepare and requires very little fuss and few accompaniments. Combine it with mozzarella, a little olive oil, basil and a light sprinkling of coarsely ground salt and pepper, and you have a divine salad.”

And, given what the Kumato does for the giant Galapagos tortoise, we can surely look forward to salad days indeed.

(First published in The Weekender.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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