Taste of Summer

Hanover tomatoes are back on the shelves. What makes them such an enduring favorite?

When it’s this hot outside, the question of What’s for dinner? can feel like a threat. Who wants to fire up their oven to 350 degrees when the mercury is showing three digits on its own? Who even wants to boil water?

For decades, Richmonders have been turning to a solution right out of the city’s own backyard: the Hanover tomato. Plump, red, bursting with flavor, sweetness and a touch of acidity, this favorite fruit of Central Virginia doesn’t need much to make it a meal. White bread and a swipe of mayonnaise. A little olive oil and basil. Toasted bread, lettuce and bacon.

Everyone’s got a strongly held opinion on the best preparation. In the 1980s, legendary Richmond businesspeople and philanthropists Sydney and Frances Lewis opined in the Times-Dispatch that Hanover tomatoes could only “properly” be served “thickly sliced … with alternating slices of Bermuda onion, on a fine china plate. If anything at all, add only a dab of salt or lemon.”

Even people who eye tomatoes with suspicion have been converted by the Hanover. Marcy Durrer, deputy director of recreation services for Hanover County, home to the annual Hanover Tomato Festival, says she was never a fan until she ate a plate of the fried green variety. That was all it took.

“At the peak of the season, they really do have a uniquely delicious flavor,” she says.

That flavor, say farmers and horticulturalists, is due to the soil in eastern Hanover, a combination of sand, silt and clay that holds just the right amount of water.

“There’s no such thing as a cultivar or a variety of Hanover tomato,” says Ed Wall, a master gardener who grows 14 different varieties of tomatoes in his backyard for educational programs — and eating. Instead, the designation is geographic. Any tomato grown in Hanover County can bear the title of “Hanover tomato,” whether it’s grape-, plum- or just regular ol’ round-shaped. Many are in fact Mountain varieties, a series of tomatoes bred by Randy Gardner, an aptly named, retired professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University.

“They’re a little heartier. They can handle this heat,” says Kevin Pond, the farm manager at Hanover Vegetable Farm, which has been growing Hanover tomatoes almost since the Sears family started the operation in 1902. “Us and North Carolina, I think, grow the best tomatoes.”

Once a tomato supplier for Ukrop’s before its closure, Hanover Vegetable Farm now sells tomatoes to companies like Kroger and out of its own market off Ashland Road. To keep afloat in a challenging market dominated by big agribusiness, it’s expanded into the event space, hosting popular festivals, concerts, weddings, haunted houses and pumpkin picking, as well as selling other produce, mulch and more.

Pond notes that Hanover tomatoes are heartier and can handle the heat. “Us and North Carolina, I think, grow the best tomatoes,” he says.

But the tomatoes are still going strong, says Pond. Every June, people start calling the farm to see if the Hanover tomatoes are in and if the market is selling its tomato pies. (Last year, it sold more than 1,000.) Most of the interest remains regional, or from people with family ties to Central Virginia, but once an appetite is whetted, it seems to remain strong.

“We had a lady call from Minnesota the other day and say, ‘Can you ship me tomatoes?’” Pond recalls during a June tour of the farm’s fields, where young plants rose knee-high.

Some of the uses of the tomato have changed over time, he says. Fewer people can vegetables today, meaning there are less requests for boxes of the fruit. And as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported recently, an aging farmer population along with fewer Hanover tomato producers may threaten to reduce supply on the market. But millennials’ interest in farm-to-table produce and healthy living are also driving new demand.

“There’s now a generation of 25-to-35-year-olds who think you’ve got to eat healthier,” says Pond.

For many devotees of the Hanover tomato, Durrer says, it comes down to tradition — the tomatoes and the county festival celebrating them, which was first launched in the 1970s by the Black Creek Volunteer Fire Department, give people a “come-home feeling.”

“Hanover is a community very rooted in tradition,” she says. Although COVID paused the tomato festival in 2020, the county brought it back in a renewed form, with a two-day schedule that allows attendees to avoid the worst of the July heat by slating programs for Friday night and Saturday morning. Last year, over 12,000 people turned out to celebrate. Durrer is hoping for as many or more when the festival kicks off Friday, July 12.

All of the tomatoes, she’s quick to note, will be from Hanover.

For Richmonders longing after the summery taste of tomatoes but hampered by space constraints, Wall recommends trying a hand at container gardening. You might not be able to grow a Hanover tomato outside the county’s boundaries, but, he says, “You can grow just about anything with containers.”

“There’s no such thing as agricultural failure — only experiment,” he says.

And if it doesn’t work, farmstands throughout Hanover are already stocking the bright-red fruit, ready for the next generation of eaters.

“It did kind of get passed down,” says Pond. “This is what you buy. When they come out, go get them.”

The Hanover Tomato Festival takes place Friday, July 12 and Saturday, July 13 at Pole Green Park, 8996 Pole Green Park Lane in Mechanicsville. 

 

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