I first tasted these heavenly sun-dried cherry tomatoes a few weeks ago with a friend . They had such an amazingly rich, intense tomato flavor that we immediately checked the label to see whether sugar had been added. None had, of course. Nor had salt (!) or anything else except sunflower oil, garlic and spices. They were so good we ditched our original plan to throw them into a sauce with capers and sardines and instead savored them on the plainest of barley rusks.
Actually, ‘sun-dried’ turned out to be a misnomer. Despite the name, these tomatoes are not, in fact, dried in the sun. Of course, neither are the vast majority of commercially available ‘sun-dried’ tomatoes. Traditional sun-drying runs the risk of bacterial damage or contamination from insects or dust and is not the method of choice for large-scale producers. But unlike mass-produced sun-dried tomatoes, which are dehydrated as they ride through a super-heated tunnel on a conveyor belt, Agreco’s tomatoes are gently dried on a tray at low temperatures using geothermal energy. The low drying temperatures preserve much more of the flavor and, of course as well as the deep red color of the fruit than the usual industrial drying methods. The tomatoes also retain more of their lycopene, an antioxidant believed to have a protective role in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Greece is rich in geothermal energy sources. While the potential of these renewable energy sources is still relatively unexploited, progress is being made. The installed capacity of geothermal applications in Greece increased by 135% to 175 MWt in the last 7 years . A portion of this energy is used in agricultural applications, such as heating greenhouses and fish ponds and regulating the winter temperatures of open fisheries. It is also being used on a small scale to dry fruit and vegetables.
Agreco’s tomato dehydration plant, situated in Neo Erasmio atop a geothermal field on the banks of the Nestos delta in the prefecture of Xanthi (northeastern Greece), has been in operation since 2001. It now produces 16 tons of dried tomatoes annually.The initial project was financed by the EU program LEADER II by 50% and 50% by private finance. The success of Agreco’s operations were summarized as a case study for the EU-funded GEOFAR (Geothermal Finance and Awareness in European Regions), an initiative that deals with the application and promotion of geothermal energy in Europe. According to GEOFAR, the Xanthi project was the first application of geothermal drying in Europe. Since then, other companies (including one in Santorini) have begun to use geothermal energy in tomato hydration.
Agreco also dries cherries, peppers, eggplant, unsalted throumba olives and surprisingly asparagus. The last is also sold fresh; the farm’s geothermal boreholes are also used to warm the soil in the root system of the asparagus in winter.