“LIFE is too short to stuff a mushroom”, was the mantra of Shirley Conran, author of a book called Superwoman published in the early 1970s. This was the era of women striking out for equal rights, particularly in the workplace where equal pay still had not been introduced. Distant days, but I remember them well. However, I opted to keep Miss instead of becoming a Ms, I did not burn my bra and nor did I mind in the slightest if a man held the door open for me or offered me his seat on the train. Conran’s book was hailed as the modern Mrs Beeton, providing advice on how to be the perfect housewife and manage one’s household, while also maintaining a full-time career.

If life was too short for stuffing mushrooms, I'm sure stuffing tomatoes would have been rejected in equal fashion.

The tomato being a Mediterranean ingredient, the "dish" I remember most from my childhood is the tomato sandwich, salty and peppery on fresh white bread, liberally buttered. True, tomatoes were the main content of our salads, plonked whole on the plate unceremoniously. But nothing very special stands out in my memory, other than a time in the 1960s when my mum began having dinner parties and struggled in frustration to perfect her vandyked tomato garnish.

As a family, we always looked forward to the special things of summertime in local shops and the Scotch tomato was just one of them. I was always aware that these hailed from the Clyde Valley. But where are they now? In short, most tomatoes grown in Scotland today are cultivated on a domestic scale in people’s own homes and gardens, allotments or community garden projects. I have vivid childhood memories of the heavy, geranium-like scent of tomatoes growing in my friend’s glass lean-to; the hot threshold between her kitchen and sunny back garden, where her grandpa carefully tended the green plants, each fruit picked from the vine at its peak of perfect red ripeness.

The Clyde Valley developed as a fruit-growing region in the Victorian era. During the 1950s and 1960s they were producing enormous quantities of Scotland’s fresh produce for home consumption, plus some exports, until the demise began, in part due to competition from Holland and later, Spain. Just a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that David Craig was leading a serious entrepreneurial bid to grow Scotch tomatoes commercially again. I followed the new Clyde Valley Tomatoes project closely, noting how quickly their produce grew in popularity. They were growing many different varieties and had no difficulty in finding a market. So many people were enthused by their venture, it received excellent media attention. And then, one day, I learned that Clyde Valley Tomatoes was closing down.

I spoke to David recently and asked what had happened. When all was explained, the answer quickly became clear. Unsurprisingly, tomatoes are not entirely suited to our climate. They need plenty of sunlight, but also round-the-clock warmth. The high cost of fuel to provide 24-hour heat has become almost insurmountable. In years gone by, the sheltered and sunny Clyde Valley was also in close proximity to a constant supply of cheap coal to heat the glasshouses, transported on the railway network that also took the tomatoes to market. Recruitment was never an issue when large families inhabited this region and were keen to find work close to their homes. In recent times, few local people showed any interest in a full-time job growing, nurturing and cropping tomatoes. It took a whole growing season to fully train a skilled worker, but it was very difficult to retain them due to lack of interest or pride in what they were producing. Of course the railway is no more and neither are the coal mines. David realised very quickly that they should have invested in a green energy resource at the outset, but the cost of doing so was, sadly, prohibitive.

My interest in Scotch tomatoes was further renewed when I read about The Veg Company in Ellon, Aberdeenshire. Here, a farmer and his daughter, Ellie Sinclair, had hit upon the idea of investing in a fully operational, on-site anaerobic digester producing heat and energy for a small, controlled-environment, indoor vegetable plot. The digester is fuelled by slurry and silage from the farm, producing methane, which produces electricity to power the grow lights. The grow lights provide consistent warmth 24 hours per day. What began as a plan in 2010, went live in November 2014 when Ellie started experimenting with growing a wide variety of vegetables, salads and herbs. Now, she specialises in tomatoes and chillies. She also makes sauces, chutneys and relishes, which have become so popular that she plans to expand this side of the operation too. The Sinclairs’ experiment, although quite small-scale, has worked thanks largely to their fuel resource. Now they know the technology is successful and have begun to build a market for their produce, they hope to take their ideas forward on an even greater level. I hope Ellie’s enthusiasm and vitality will receive deserved support from Scotland’s wider food and drink industry. It would be great to see this technology used elsewhere too and then perhaps, one day we will be growing more Scotch tomatoes to relish and enjoy.

Baked stuffed tomatoes with black pudding

(Makes eight)

8 large tomatoes, firm but ripe

1 medium onion

4 slices good quality black pudding

4 tbsp Scottish cream cheese

1 tbsp dry white breadcrumbs

4 tbsp olive oil

Handful fresh oregano or marjoram leaves or 1 tsp dried herbs


1. Preheat oven to 190°C.

2. Wash and dry tomatoes leaving the stalk intact. Cut a very small, thin slice from the base of each one to creat a flat surface. Slice the top off each tomato, and using a sharp knife and a teaspoon (a grapefruit knife is ideal) cut around the centre of each tomato, lift out the core, scrape out the seeds and leave the shell upturned on kitchen paper to dry, together with the tomato tops. Retain contents of tomato shell in a bowl together with residual juice.

3. Place the black pudding on a baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes in the preheated oven until sizzling. Remove and leave to cool. Place in a mixing bowl and break up with a fork.

4. Chop the onion very finely and cook in two tablespoons of hot olive oil in a frying pan until soft and translucent. Remove and add to the black pudding mix.

5. Add the cream cheese and stir together well. No additional seasonings are required.

6. Pack the black pudding mix into each tomato shell to just below the rim, keeping the outside and rim clear of mixture and leaving a neat finish. Stand in an ovenproof dish to which one tablespoon of olive oil has been poured. Scatter the herbs over the oil. Sprinkle the surface of the black pudding mixture with breadcrumbs and brush the surface skin of each tomato and top with the last of the olive oil. Balance tomato tops at an angle on each one.

7. Place in the oven at 180°C and bake for up to 20 minutes until tomatoes and filling are hot. Keep warm, ready for serving whole to accompany roast meat, or as a dish in their own right. Great for parties and barbecues, they can be prepared in advance and put into the oven when the meat is roasting.

Shirley spear is owner of Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye, and chairwoman of the Scottish Food Commission, which is helping to build Scotland into a Good Food Nation. See threechimneys.co.uk or phone 01470 511258