Mistress of the vine arts in Woodbridge
PUBLISHED: 11:39 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013
When Sarenka Knights was given a mysterious French tomato by a neighbour, it sparked a hobby that has brought her in touch with people from across the world as well as helping raise funds for a cats' charity. Steph Wright reports
When Sarenka Knights was given a mysterious French tomato by a neighbour, it sparked a hobby that has brought her in touch with people from across the world as well as helping raise funds for a cats charity. Steph Wright reports
So what first brought you into growing tomatoes...to raise money for cats? Its an unconventional question, but then, Sarenka Knight is an unconventional lady. Moving from England to the Pyrenees in France, and back again within 20 years, and running a range of businesses in her time (from a commercial farm in France to her current endeavour, Hill House Hall bed and breakfast in Woodbridge), its clear that this benevolent entrepreneur is not afraid of diversity in her life. Unsurprisingly then, it was only natural for her to combine her inherent interest in tomatoes (her father also grew them commercially) with her love of cats. As a result, through selling her tomatoes, tomato plants, and their seeds from her home on the Market Hill, Woodbridge, with all proceeds going to charity, Sarenka has raised over 1,000 for the Cats Protection League. Here, she tells us the story of how she first forged this somewhat bizarre connection between fruit and felines...
Its a charming story, really, rather than a big story she says modestly, before launching into a tale of how she first came to grow such a unique variety of tomato. An elderly gentleman called Albert Personne, the former neighbour of my parents-in-law, who live in the Dordogne in France, gave me a tomato, saying Take this, theyve been in my family for generations. As is traditional in rural France, people save the seeds from year to year never buying seeds but saving and storing the seeds over winter and then cultivating next years from the seeds of the same plant.
Its the ultimate form of recycling, in a way taking the seeds of one plant and using them again and again for generations. In this way old varieties are preserved but we need new generations of gardeners with an interest in old varieties.
For this reason, Sarenka believes that the gigantic gourd-like tomatoes she grows, which are so distinctly different from the smooth, round tomatoes were used to seeing in supermarkets now, may have been very close relatives of the original un- hybridised strains which were brought back to Europe from South America in the 16th century. Ive actually looked at some woodcuts from the early 17th century, and the tomatoes shown in those look exactly like these. As Albert had no idea when this particular seed had first come into his family, but knew that his father, grandfather and great grandfather had all cultivated it, the theory that the kind of tomatoes which Sarenka now grows is possibly hundreds of years old, and similar to the first tomatoes brought back from South America, is fairly plausible.
So how is such an archaic type of fruit being received in the modern day? The first year I grew them here in Woodbridge, I put them in the back garden, but they all died from tomato blight. So then I decided as a last vain attempt to grow them at the front of the house with the hope they would not get blight. At the time I did not think anyone would take any notice, but people saw them when they were walking past and came in to ask about them.
In fact, Sarenka now has so many visitors intrigued by the huge tomatoes growing outside her front door, that shes had to set up her own website on justgiving.com to cope with all the international donations. Now, Alberts tomato is grown in places as far flung as northern Scotland, the Czech Republic and parts of Africa, and Sarenka is inundated with emails asking for tomato seeds or gardening advice.
Perhaps the most charming outcome of this charming tale, however, is that Alberts tomato has recently found its way back to France. Sarenkas local notoriety, not as the owner of Hill House Hall and the Little Cat Hotel, or as an esteemed piano tutor and professional player, but as The Tomato Lady, has channelled into a fan base of fellow tomato-growers which spans several continents, and resulted in Mr Nobodys Tomato (Personne translates as nobody or somebody as she prefers to think of Albert in French) finding its way back home to France, while allowing many homeless or sick cats to do the same.
Its nice, really, adds Sarenka, that this tomato given to me as a gift is being handed on in the spirit it was given to me and has not died out but is delighting new generations of gardeners and helping our unwanted cats and kittens.
The Cats Protection League
The Cats Protection League is the UKs leading feline welfare charity. It works nationally through over 250 volunteer-run branches to home abandoned or wild cats, neuter cats to prevent unwanted litters being born, and provide information on cat care through their publications, website and helpline. Unlike other charities such as the RSPCA, they will never put a cat down, and donations are distributed locally, allowing supporters of the charity to really see the difference made thanks to their contributions.