Look to multi-colored heritage tomatoes for a bright explosion of color and taste. Fire-engine red is just one option. From varieties so small that several fit into a teaspoon to whopper sizes larger than a sandwich, with round, lumpy, flat, or elongated shapes in all colors but blue, there’s treasure galore to be found. It is worth seeking out the succulent summer flavor in a sun-ripened tomato, especially a heritage tomato that was bred to be savored warm from the field, not cold from commercial storage.
Some heritage tomatoes look a little unusual, but, mmmm, taste that ripe, green-striped little “Green Zebra” tomato’s sweet and zingy flavor. “Green Sausage” is even stranger looking. Try the “Purple Cherokee” or the Russian type, “Black Krim.” These two have vibrant flavor that grows stronger in your mouth: Do you think it’s from that weird blackened purple color that makes you wonder whether they are safe as food?
That astonishingly big pumpkin-colored one, “Persimmon,” is another winner. “Arkansas Traveler” from the Ozarks produces big, dark, pink, tasty tomatoes even in hot, hot weather. And who could forget our own lumpy, mottled, red and green “Brandywine,” which may be the most luscious tasting of them all and is thought to be an Amish-saved strain. One thick slice, salted, makes a sandwich to remember.
“Yellow Pear” for salads is local and cute. But maybe “Berkeley Tie Dyed” is more your style, with plenty of flavor and psychedelic stripes of red and green. With tomatoes like these for the picking, there is never a reason to eat an artificially ripened tomato that does not even drip when you slice it.
Wild tomatoes grew in the South American highlands and Mesoamerica, where they were developed by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. When seeds were first carried back to Europe, tomatoes were considered poisonous ornamentals. Since they are relatives of deadly nightshade, this should not surprise us. Eventually they were considered aphrodisiacs (“Love Apples”) and soon were accepted as safe to eat, first in Italy and southern European countries. Thomas Jefferson spread their acceptance as a food crop in the U.S.
Heirloom tomato varieties are not so old. Many were developed on farms here and around the world by people saving seeds of those that succeeded. Other types were developed by seed companies for home and farm growing, not for agribusiness and long-distance shipping.
My tomato guru, Tim “Tomato Tim” Mountz, has been growing, showing, breeding, eating, and selling heritage tomatoes that he and his wife Amy grow at Happy Cat Organics, their farm in Lancaster County. Tim and Amy are part of an energetic group of organic gardeners who are bringing local produce to our area. They also save and sell seed of heritage varieties, and sell plants. In addition, Tim teaches vegetable gardening to anyone who wants to learn at the “Vegetable Growers Monthly Meeting” at Terrain at Styer’s Nursery (914 Baltimore Pike, Concordville, Pa.). The group gathers the second Saturday of the month all summer at 11am and you can come to any or all the meetings. It is free, and seed swapping is encouraged.
Tim says heritage tomatoes are closer to the wild tomato species, and that means that they tend to be self-pollinating and stay true to type. He can grow differently named tomatoes just five or more feet apart and not have unwanted mixtures in the seeds that result from the crop.
I asked Tim what he’d recommend as an early-ripening heritage tomato for someone whose growing conditions are not ideal—a little too much shade, which slows things down, not the open, sunny space of his farm. He suggested the half-inch pinkish-red cherry tomato “Rosalita” which, for him, is the first one ready to harvest. It is fruity with an addictive flavor. Since it’s so early he can’t resist eating the little gems straight from the plants when he’s supposed to pick them as a crop. His field notes simply say, “Freakin” great!” Another one he likes for an extra early crop is “Wayahead,” which is available from www.jungseed.com and is red and juicy, about two inches wide. Plant size is “determinate,” which means it does not get that tall. If Tim starts plants inside, he can pick these two types by the first of July. For flavor he really likes the dark types like “Black Krim.”
People with full sun and access to horse manure or other natural fertilizer can grow any kind of tomato they like. Surround plants with marigolds to fend off tomato hornworms. Once tomatoes begin to color up, hold back a bit on the water to concentrate that tomato flavor.
If you are trying to select just a few varieties for your garden from the mind-bending array of choices, think about their culinary uses. Are you looking for cherry tomatoes for salad or stir fry? Beefsteak types for big slices and juice? Unusual looking colors for extra dazzle on the plate? Paste tomatoes for sauce? “Amish Paste” is a great local variety, by the way.
Another way to decide is by taste. Farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture groups, and even some supermarkets are making them available. For the overview, attend a tomato-tasting event and celebrate the goodness. Styer’s Nursery plans to have its second annual tomato tasting on August 22. It’s a true festival with party plates of multicolored tomatoes. There are tasting tables from many local growers and chefs, plus farm market stands for bringing your favorites home.