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Legendary tomatoes grow on a rooftop in the hot heart of the city

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia is rather famous for its tomatoes, most specifically the Hanover County variety.

But there are those - myself among them - who venture to say that THE best tomatoes can't be found in that rural suburb north of RVA, but in the hot heart of downtown Richmond, just a block and a half off the main drag.

They're grown in the midst of a concrete jungle on Bowe Street that sprouted heavy, hot, thermometer-colored brick industrial buildings and similar row houses once were known to house more than a few hotheads. (The neighborhood has since been tamed by Virginia Commonwealth University.)

Arthur "Artie" Probst

Thirty-five years ago, longtime Richmond photographer and bartender (Sobles) Arthur "Artie" Probst acquired the top (third) floor of an industrial printing firm building built in 1911.

"Oh, this has been heaven," Probst said as he gave us a tour of his vast loft. "It took me 15 to 20 years to get it like it is."

And for the better part of a quarter-century, he's also been refining and sharpening his rooftop gardening skills on the big flat roof just outside of his living room.

He's famed for his Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, grown from seed in a special hand-blended mix of soil that he has perfected over the years. (He also grows other varieties of tomatoes and peppers.)

"It ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "I use the same recipe every year, and do the same thing."

He weeds out his seedlings to find the bravest plants for his 60 or so 5-gallon buckets. Pantyhose gently holds the fruit-laden branches in place.

But it's the tending that tends to make a tender, juicy, flavorful fruit, Artie said.

"That's the main thing that goes into these things is love," he said after watering his babies on a scorching July day. "And they need loving every day."

No, you can't buy them in stores. You have to be connected, so to speak, either by helping with the tending and watering or by being among his circle of friends and acquaintances, which is rather extensive given his history as a Fan District bartender.

"They're the best I've ever had," said Ted Salins, a film studies professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland - near the epicenter of Hanover Tomatoland.

"When you eat one of Artie's tomatoes," Salins added, "you know you're eating a berry. It's more like a strawberry or a raspberry than a sandwich vegetable."

One of my favorite RVA cooks, Sam King, agrees that they're the best.

"Big flavor, thin-skinned," she said. "All the things a tomato should be."

Artie's tomato love is undeniable. No doubt that's the key ingredient, Sam agreed.

But maybe, just maybe, it's also that hothouse-like concrete jungle and the city's gritty atmosphere that has grown some of the world's great artists, writers, musicians and offbeat characters.

Perhaps it takes a tough town to grow a tender tomato.