Heirloom Tomatoes

Produce with a past.

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Once upon a time, tomatoes were prized for their flavour. Lumpy and irregular contours were overlooked in favour of sweetness, tanginess, saltiness, earthiness and that oh-so-indescribable tomato essence. Some growers saved the seeds from plants that were best for canning or making into pastes, chutneys, salsa, jams and relishes, as well as those that were just plain delicious. They may not have been the belles of the ball looks-wise, but they delivered on taste.

Tomatoes back then came in different sizes and shapes, some speckled, some striped, from the size of a blueberry to one-pound wonders. Some were long and pointed, some pear-shaped. They also came in a rainbow of colours: yellow, pink, red, purple, brownish-black and bright green, even when fully ripe. There was even a tomato season, when the garden’s bounty led to a feast of fresh tomatoes eaten moments off the vine, as well as lengthy sessions of canning, drying and preserving.

But that all changed in the 1940s. With the advent of mechanized farming and national grocery-distribution routes, there was high demand for thick-skinned tomatoes that didn’t get damaged in transport, and consumers began to prefer perfectly shaped and uniformly coloured tomatoes. Seed companies started producing hybridized tomatoes, bred to produce abundant and consistently sized fruit, which soon became the tomatoes of choice for farms with efficient picking and processing schedules. The consequence was that flavour was sacrificed for these other considerations.

Fortunately, some of the traditional, non-commercial varieties endured, thanks to stubborn backyard gardeners, specialty growers and tomato enthusiasts who remembered how tomatoes used to taste. In the early 1980s, seed-saver groups came together, and a movement began that would attempt to catalogue and rekindle our romance with these heritage tomatoes. Soon afterward, the term “heirloom tomato” started appearing, attached to these obscure but tasty varieties.

As the name suggests, heirloom tomatoes have been handed down through generations of tomato growers because of their desirable flavour characteristics, and even their rustic beauty—although disagreements are common regarding what, specifically, qualifies. Some feel that the seeds must come from varieties that have existed for over 100 years; others say 50 years; and still others say that the variety only has to predate the late 1940s, when the widespread proliferation of large-scale industrial agriculture occurred.

Categorization questions aside, heirlooms have come a long, long way from their relative obscurity in the late 1970s and 1980s. Heirloom-tomato growers can now peruse the thousands of varieties available today in seed catalogues, and they hotly trade their seeds at the early spring community seed exchanges.

Heirloom tomatoes are traditional varieties that openly pollinate; that is, they pollinate naturally, due to wind, bees and other forces of nature. Hybrids—the tomatoes we are familiar with—are self-pollinating, and are generally more productive and uniform. Hybridized seeds, however, cannot be regrown from seeds from a mother plant, and must therefore be purchased anew each year. Open-pollination fruits and vegetables are prone to subtle adaptations from generation to generation, but are more genetically stable; the seeds can be saved and planted again to produce the next season’s crop.

Another appealing aspect of heirloom tomatoes is their exotic and storied names. Brandywine is likely the most popular and most commonly grown of the heirlooms, and it traces its ancestry back to seed catalogues from the late 1800s. True Brandywine tomatoes are large, thin-skinned, pink-fleshed fruits that weigh about a pound and are renowned for their intense flavour. Black Krim is a popular heirloom from Eastern Europe. The large, extremely flavourful tomatoes have red and green colourings so dark that they appear black. Red Currant tomatoes are sweet, pea-sized tomatoes that are the closest to the ancestral wild tomatoes of Central and South America, from which all tomatoes descended. Cherokee Purple tomatoes comes from the southeastern United States are large, dark red or purple, and have a flavour that makes up for any cosmetic shortcomings they might have.

If you aren’t quite ready to grow your own, heirloom tomatoes are increasingly making appearances at restaurants, farmers markets and specialty grocery stores in late summer and early fall. They’re sometimes several times the price of their ubiquitous year-round supermarket cousins, but there is no real comparison on the palate. For those who don’t mind the added effort or expense, the reward is simply the best-tasting tomato you’ve ever experienced, which will ensure that, from then on, you’re hooked on these culinary gems.


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June 1, 2008