The red feast of the island
The volcanic land of Santorini has embraced the cherry tomato from the very first moment. For its sake, factories have opened up and even conferences are being organised today. Let us have a look at the way it is harvested and processed...
The red revolution in Santorini
Nesting in the volcanic soil of the island and absorbing the humidity of the caldera at night, the legendary ‘Santorini cherry tomato’ is born: deep red and firm outside, flaming red and juicy inside...
Cultivation of the cherry tomato in Santorini dates back to 1875. According to Folklorist Ioannis Kyriakos, the cherry tomato was cultivated on the slopes of Profitis Ilias before spreading to the rest of the island. In the beginning, it was cultivated only to cover the residents’ nutritional needs. However, this changed when the October Revolution broke out and all commercial transactions between Santorini and Russia were interrupted. Until then the largest part of the vinsanto and wine production was absorbed by Russia. Thus, in 1919, there was a turn from vine-growing to tomato cultivation, considered at that time to be more profitable. “They were so desperate they would almost eradicate all vineyards” admits Antonis Argyros, owner of the art gallery ArtSpace. His gallery occupies an old wine cellar in Mesa Gonia, part of which accomodates a tomato processing workshop.
Tomato cultivation spread quickly and soon became very popular. Of course, its special quality wasn’t fully understood although the rich flavour of its paste had already gained fans. The soil of Santorini had once again produced a miracle. Soon after cultivation began, the first tomato paste industries opened, followed by the opening of canning factories for the standardisation of the product. The first one was set up by Dimitrios Nomikos in Monolithos in 1925; second came the canning factory ABIS in 1935. In 1940 there were three tomato processing units in Santorini. The exact number of plants operating until 1956 isn’t known, but it’s estimated that it ranged between nine and fourteen.
The earthquake in 1956 forced the industries either to close or move to other areas of Greece. A flourishing industry would have absolutely vanished if it had not been for the Union of Santorini Cooperatives. The Union, operating since 1952 in Monolithos, supported those islanders who kept cultivating the cherry tomato. The Union has been operating non-stop for 60 years now, and today it is the only processing and standardisation plant for the Santorini cherry tomato. At the Cooperatives Union shop located in Pyrgos, you can find all kinds of cherry tomato products: tomato paste, baby tomatoes, and tomato sauce, all packaged in glass jars and cans.
Equipped today with modern machinery and infrastructure, the Union continues to play a significant role connecting the production, promotion, distribution and selling of the Santorini tomato. The Cooperatives Union premises are to be restored in the near future for receiving visitors.
Mattheos Dimopoulos, General Manager of the Santorini Cooperatives Union, is very optimistic in view of the continuously increasing rate of local production and the worldwide recognition of the high quality and value of Santorini products.
The tomato feast
In July, in the heart of summer, all plots –rom the Oia valleys to the Profitis Ilias slopes– overflow with the voices of people going up and down carrying coffins full of delicious cherry tomatoes. This is the harvesting period lasting about 20 days, a real feast for the whole of Santorini. Once harvested, the crop is transferred to the Cooperatives Union plant in Monolithos. Producers of all ages gather together - from small children helping their parents to elderly people narrating stories about the cherry tomato and its role in the agricultural life of Santorini. Andreas Koiliakoudis, who had been working as an engineer in the factory since 1965, remembers that “the engines would never stop working, the factory worked day and night with power generators”. The atmosphere in the factory is very lively. The sounds of engines mingle with the voices of workers and visitors. Processing follows all the necessary contemporary procedures. Tomato cherries are taken out of the coffin, washed and seeded. They are then chopped, peeled, warmed, concentrated, and loaded into boxes. Everything is dyed red.