Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heirloom Tomatoes

Someone asked me to explain what an heirloom tomato is….

I guess it does sound like we’re selling very old tomatoes or some type of fruit you might hand down through the family. Maybe the term does warrant a little clarification.

An “heirloom tomato” is an open-pollinated variety that will fruit true to type if you save the seeds for planting. This is unlike a hybrid that may or may not be true to type if you save the seeds. There is a great deal about breeding for seed that I cannot explain here. Rather than muddy the waters, I’ll just try to explain what it means when you see HEIRLOOM TOMATOES advertised at the Market, in a seed catalog, or possibly on the menu at some classy restaurant.

Since the seeds can be saved from the heirloom tomatoes, the varieties have been around for a LONG, LONG time. Some claim to date back to the War Between the States and possibly earlier. There is a great deal of genetic diversity, so you can find all sorts of colors: white, red, black, orange, yellow and striped. They have great names, too…like “Green Pineapple”, “Mortgage Lifter” ,“Mr. Stripey”, and “Cherokee Chocolate”.
Odd shapes and irregular ripening are also part of the package. Just reading about the various types and colors of tomatoes on a cold winter day can provide a source of great deal of reading pleasure. Check out for more information.

The hybrid tomatoes (the type you see in the store) are bred for constant supply, quick growth, and the ability to be shipped long distances. I won’t even attempt to explain what happens to a tomato prior to your grocery store purchase. Those tomatoes are almost a different species than what you can grow at home or buy at the Market. Home gardeners grow hybrids because they are earlier, less susceptible to disease and they are pretty. Most hybrid tomatoes are pretty red globes, rather than the odd and unusual shapes of the old-time tomatoes.

There is a place in this world for the hybrid tomato. Without it, sandwiches across America would just have lettuce and mayonnaise. Tacos and salads would be rather boring, there wouldn’t be any salsa …and those craving tomatoes in January would have to go hungry.

But, once you have experienced an heirloom, you may never go back. The memory of the complex fruity taste, the sheer deliciousness of it will make it possible to survive for the 9 or 10 months of the year that we are “tomato-less” in Virginia. You may find that you have become a “tomato bigot”. Nothing can compare…nothing.

There is a quality to heirloom tomatoes that almost defies description. I love to take a big bite out of one right off the vine, the delicious juice dripping down my fingers creating a sweet, sticky mess.
A BLT becomes a gourmet delight. My artistic side is gratified when arranging a plate of sliced tomatoes for lunch or supper. The tomato garden is filled with beautiful glowing jewels in the early morning light.

The down-side of heirloom tomatoes is in the shortness of the season. While the seeds are started in March, it is often August before the tomato harvest begins in earnest. The first frost (which can be in mid-September) puts an end to the delicious eating. The season seems far too short.

However, by that point, we have canned, frozen and dried a good amount.
We may not enjoy the wonders of “fresh-picked”, but there will be some type of tomatoes for off-season consumption.

You haven’t tried an heirloom tomato? Oh…you need to! Get one at the Market this weekend. Find out the story behind the name, or ask about the nuances of taste.
You will be amazed! I promise.

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