The other day I was driving between Houston and Brenham, TX. Along the side of the road are local stands (often just the backs of pickup trucks) selling local watermelons, peaches tomatoes, etc. I decide to stop and buy a bunch of tomatoes. I figured (1) they were locally grown which are so much better and (2) they helped support local area farmers. We all know that produce grown locally just has a different, fresher flavor. Those apples and onions in your local grocery store were probably picked at least a week ago. And if they had any flavor at all to begin with (doubtful), it's lost it by the time it reaches your grocer and your home. It got me to thinking of produce quality and flavor. That got me to thinking of heirloom tomatoes. I’m certain you’ve heard the term “heirloom tomato” and have at least a vague idea of what it means. Talk about flavor! Have you had one? Do you grow them? Have you ever thought about what makes them so different? That sounded more and more like a blog post to me, so here we go!
What Makes An Heirloom an Heirloom?
You can think of an “heirloom” as a variety that has been passed down from gardener to gardener across generations. Seeds get exchanged and shared. Some people even put an age on them (usually a variety that’s been in existence for at least 40 or 50 years).
So what you ask? The same type of tomatoes that they grew 100 years ago. Big deal. So it's "nostalgic". Well, it's more than just that. Go ahead, ask someone why they prefer the heirloom tomatoes and almost always they’ll answer the same way; flavor. Heirloom tomatoes just seem to have more flavor. Some call it “old-world” flavor. Some call it a more pure, more flavorful, more complex tasting tomato. All true.
As many of us know, the vast majority of tomatoes we come across at our local grocery store are pretty much flavorless. Why? Some say it’s because growers cultivated tomatoes that ripen evenly. Having an entire tomato ripen all at once (instead of say at one tip first) makes it easier to see when tomatoes are ripe. This makes harvesting easier and more efficient. As farmers sought out this quality (caused by a single mutation) this trait also resulted in tomatoes that are less efficient at photosynthesizing, resulting in less sugar and other compounds. In short, they traded flavor for efficiency. In fact, research has shown that the chance of finding a non-mutated tomato at your local grocery is about zero.
So Many Choices
Thanks to seed exchanges and seed sellers, thankfully there are a ton of different varieties of heirloom tomatoes still around. Some are easier to come by than others when it comes to both growing in your own garden and for purchase at farmers’ markets and (usually natural) grocery stores. I plowed through a bunch of “favorite” and “most popular” lists and thought I’d share some of the ones that seem to pop up again and again.
These just might be the kings (or queens) of the heirlooms. They are huge and old - and some say the best-tasting of all the heirloom tomatoes. Their redish-pink, beefsteak-like fruit can get up to 2 pounds each. And they date back to the 19th century. I don’t know about you, but in my mind that qualifies as both huge and old.
Cuban Yellow Grape??
These guys originally hail from…you guessed it….Cuba. They grow as clusters of small, yellow, yes “grape-like” tomatoes. They are oval-shaped. And like a lot of smaller grape tomatoes they are very sweet and pack a lot of flavor in a very small package.
Super Snow White
Originally from Germany, this one’s a relatively large cherry tomato. These grow in clusters of small (1-2 oz.; maybe about he size of a ping-pong ball) pale yellow, almost white fruits. Many people describe them as "ivory white". They are known for being very, very sweet. It’s fruity flavor has even been said to have notes of pineapple. The interiors are very cool-looking also, so people often slice them for salads. (And anyway, they might be a little too large to eat whole.)
These tomatoes are small and dark colored. They are sort of between cherry tomatoes and full-size tomatoes. Generally, they are a smaller variety that grows fruit that is somewhere between 1” and golf ball-sized fruits. They are quite sweet. Their color is darker. Think of large, dusky purple-brown grapes.
Black Krims are beefsteak tomatoes that have a pretty unusual dark-red or purple (almost maroon) coloring and green-brown “shoulders” near the stem. Inside they are a fleshy mix of red, pink, and almost black. Very interesting visually. They grow to about 3-4” and maybe 8 oz. The Black Krims have a sort of flattened, globe-shape. Their flavor is a little more tart than many others. But it has a full, very tasty flavor profile. In fact, these tomatoes even have a slightly salty flavor profile. They originated in Crimea.
Some say this one is perhaps the most-perfect tomato. You will find it has an intense but well-balanced flavor. The flesh of this tomato has a purple or rich-red and green almost marbled look. They are a larger tomato, growing to about 10-12 oz. sometimes even larger. It’s shape is a little uneven and sort of “bulges” out in places - as opposed to a smoother, more regular shape. It is thought to have been handed down from the Cherokee Indian tribe in Tennessee and is considered to have been started before 1890.
The heirlooms are definitely in-season throughout summer. Of course, the different varieties have different growing and ripening schedules. But you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a bunch of different types and sizes and flavors. Check your farmers markets or natural food stores like Whole Foods Market for the best selections. Do yourself a favor and go pick up a bunch. You’ll love the fuller, more robust flavor missing in so many (ok, maybe ALL!) those regular grocery store tomatoes.
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