Every so often, a new variety of fruit or vegetable becomes an overnight sensation. Such is the case with the hybrid strain called a grape tomato. Originally introduced as an exotic item in upscale grocery stores, this vegetable has become extremely popular for both produce growers and customers alike. Producers benefit from the its hearty skin and high yield per plant, while customers enjoy the enhanced sweetness and convenient size.
The original tomato plants found in South America produced fruit not much larger than plums. The larger and heartier varieties of tomatoes favored by consumers were the result of cross-breeding and other hybrid growing techniques. A demand for smaller tomatoes resulted in the development of the 'cherry' tomato, which became a popular item for snacking and salads.
As the years rolled by and consumer preferences changed, the cherry tomato began to lose its appeal. Its thin skin and high water content made shipping difficult, and many consumers were not impressed with its variable flavor. Meanwhile, a new strain of tomato was created in Southeast Asia which combined the thicker skin of the beefsteak-style tomato with the size and flavor of the Italian Roma tomato. The result was a first generation hybrid fruit with a thick skin, low water content and an intense sweetness. Because it resembled an olive or grape, this new variety became known as a grape tomato.
Because the grape tomato is a hybrid, seeds produced directly from the fruit cannot be used to grow more plants. Anyone interested in producing a it commercially must obtain seeds from the original hybrid strain. This is precisely what a grower from Florida did during the 1990s. He introduced the first grape tomato strain, called the Santa F1, to the United States.
Another grower in Mexico imported a similar strain from Thailand. Both growers marketed their products to gourmet grocery stores and specialty produce stores. Eventually large-scale produce companies bought up the remaining seeds in an attempt to corner the market on the popular vegetable.
A grape tomato is half the size of a cherry tomato, which makes it easier to distribute in salads and eat as a snack. The lower water content cuts down on the squirt factor experienced by many cherry tomato eaters. The flavor of this vegetable is noticeably sweeter than a Roma or cherry tomato. Some bars in Asia offer customers bowls of grape tomatoes instead of the usual salted peanuts.
Because grape tomatoes grows in clusters on a small vine, harvesting can be very labor intensive. The fruit must be picked at a point when the color is changing from light pink to a hint of red. A green tomato will not continue to ripen off the vine, and a red tomato will be overripe by the time it reaches the store shelves. However,grape tomatoes do enjoy a year-round growing season, so they should be available even when other tomato varieties are out of season or prohibitively expensive.