Correction:

Earlier versions of this story misstated the properties of Hanover County’s soil. Its pH is lower, not higher, than the soil in many other areas. This version has been corrected.

The dirt on Hanover tomatoes, well loved in central Virginia

Tim Carman/Farmers and market managers say that Hanover tomatoes get their distinctive flavor from the soil in which they are grown. The Hanover Tomato Festival in early July attracts about 40,000 people.

The taut, plump fruits that look like balloons ready to burst are labeled “Hanover Tomatoes” at the Pole Green Produce market in Mechanicsville, Va. So are the cherry and grape tomatoes in a nearby basket. As are the Romas right behind those little summer pill-poppers. As are the overflowing tables of Big Boys and Better Boys just across the market.

What gives? How can the tomato that’s the pride of Hanover County, Va., have no identifiable characteristics, like the vibrant impressionistic streaking of the Green Zebra or the lush, bruised-looking flesh of the Cherokee Purple? It’s because, farmers and market managers say, the Hanover is more about terroir than type of fruit; the tomato is defined not by its size or color, or by heirloom vs. hybrid, but by the soil it’s grown in.

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“It’s a sandy coastal-plain type of soil” in eastern Hanover, says Pattie Bland, a horticulture technician for the county. The distinctiveness of the area’s tomato, she adds, “probably has to do with the way water is held in the soil.”

As in, the soil doesn’t hold as much water as the red clay that’s buried just across Interstate 95, which essentially marks the fall line between the coastal plain to the east and the Piedmont plateau to the west. Less water in the soil means a more concentrated, more flavorful tomato with a prominent note of acid, presumably a byproduct of the county’s lower-pH soil. Or maybe the tomato just benefits from the county’s climate. “We have the perfect combination of soil and weather,” Bland says.

Whatever the reasons, the tomato is the clear breadwinner in Hanover. Farmers, particularly commercial growers such as Robert Dodd in eastern Hanover, devote acre after acre to the tomato, which then gets sold at the local grocery chain, Martin’s. Likewise, markets such as Pole Green and the Ashland Farmers Market blaze yellow and red from about mid-June until about mid-August, when tomatoes are at their peak. Even farmers just across the county line in, say, King William, have been known to sell tomatoes as “Hanovers” because they move faster.

“The Hanovers are such a staple for us,” says chef Walter Bundy at Lemaire in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, where the menu runs red with Hanovers, from a summer salad to a spicy gazpacho to a broth for mussels. “We look forward to them all year.”

The pinnacle of the season arrives in early July when Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville plays host to the Hanover Tomato Festival, which last month attracted about 40,000 people. “I have always thought of [the Hanover tomato] as akin to the Vidalia onion,” says Trevor Buckley, manager of the Ashland Farmers Market. “It’s pretty darn famous around these parts.”

Which makes some wonder why the Hanover tomato hasn’t developed a national reputation like the Vidalia onion. Kevin Damian, a farmer who runs a self-described “boutique” operation east of Ashland, points a finger at county officials. “You have to blame your county leaders for that,” Damian says. “It could put the county on the map, and they just don’t promote it.”

Those with smaller vested interests say the Hanover tomato’s inability to capture national attention has less to do with bureaucratic indifference than with the fact that, during summer, many parts of the country have their own beloved tomato. In other words, the Hanover’s appeal, like so many seasonal fruits and vegetables, is tied to the immediate vicinity’s easy access to these juicy fruits. (Locally, tomatoes grown in Hanover County are available at Wegmans in Fairfax.)

“The Hanover has become the fresh market tomato for central Virginia and somewhat Northern Virginia,” says Greg Hicks, vice president of communications for the Virginia Farm Bureau. “I think it’s the freshness more than anything” that attracts fans.

Bruce Haynes of Red Dog Farm has an equally clear-eyed take on the Hanover tomato, whose popularity, he says, lies mostly with its consistent quality. “Any tomato that is vine-ripened . . . is going to taste better than what you’re going to get in a grocery store,” he notes. “Hanover tomatoes are consistently pleasing to most people.”

How Hanover County developed its reputation for growing consistently good tomatoes (a T-shirt sold at Pole Green Produce reads: “You say tomato . . . I say Hanover!”) is not clear. Mike Wiblin, a retiree of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency, has been living in Hanover since 1973 and now runs what he calls a “farmette,” which produces the county’s famous fruit.

Wiblin remembers hearing a story about the Mantlo brothers who, back in the 1940s and ’50s, apparently discovered that when they cut the tap root on their plants, the fruits would mysteriously ripen faster. This, in turn, meant the brothers could sell their tomatoes at the historic 17th Street Farmers Market in Richmond earlier than those of their competitors.

“Everybody would say, ‘Oh my God, here come those Mantlo brothers from Hanover!’ ” Wiblin says, using a tone typically reserved for encountering small miracles. “They were ahead of everybody else [at the market] because of this technique of killing these plants.”

“It could have been a fabricated story,” Wiblin adds.

Still, he says, the Hanover tomato’s appeal back then had little to do with “the fact that they tasted any better. It’s just that these guys figured out to get them to market faster than everybody else. That’s how they got to be known as Hanover tomatoes.”

Bland, the horticulture technician, doubts that cutting the tap root would do anything more than kill the plant. Yet Wiblin’s point is well taken: Hanover tomatoes are big in Virginia, but the stories about them may be even bigger.

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