Time Traveling With Heirloom Tomatoes

Published: September 26, 2003 at 12:00 am


Time Traveling With Heirloom Tomatoes

By Dottie Evans

Now is the time when all salad lovers glory in the harvest, heading out to their gardens or the nearest farmers’ market in search of fresh tomatoes.

Not just any tomatoes, mind you, but heirloom tomatoes –– those funky-shaped, wildly colorful, bulbously delicious fruits of the vine that have sprung from seeds passed down for generations.

Heirloom tomato lovers are time travelers because when they take that first, juicy bite, they are experiencing the same tastes enjoyed by their grandparents and great-grandparents long ago.

If they close their eyes, they might almost hear the whirr of the push mower and the whiff- whiff of the lawn sprinkler. No highway noise, no cell phones, no television, just the quiet of a summer’s day and time to savor a fresh tomato.

Paul Bucciaglia of Fort Hill Farm in New Milford was selling whole boxes full of heirloom tomatoes at the Sandy Hook Organic Farmers’ Market on a recent Tuesday, and he was more than happy to familiarize all comers with their strange and wonderful shapes and colors. Even their names pique the imagination.

Who ever heard of a tomato called Eva Purple Ball or Silvery Fir Tree?

“These Brandywines are good to go!” Mr Bucciaglia said, pointing to some medium-sized, pinkish-red beauties.

“And look at those Green Zebras. As soon as they get a little soft, they’re ready to eat.”

Green Zebras are one of the most popular varieties. Their taste is full-bodied, sweet yet tart. You can tell when they are ripe if you watch for the amber and yellow colors to set in, Mr Bucciaglia said.

Heirloom tomatoes are often quite big.

“Pick a few of these one-pounders, and your shopping bag is full. People get a little shell-shocked at their size,” he laughed.

“They’re big and they’re ugly but people are starting to get used to them.”

He had cut up a Brandywine Black the color of deep mahogany into bite-size portions and set them out on a paper plate with toothpicks for sampling. Before long, those tomato snacks were history and the buyers were lining up.

Like some people we know, heirloom tomatoes are thin-skinned. This might be one reason that grocery stores do not carry them. They do not travel or stack well. But their flavor makes up for this slight deficiency.

Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter

Grown in the late 1800s and early 1900s by small farmers, heirloom tomatoes have names that may tell about the region where they were grown or hint at the circumstances behind their cultivation. Mr Bucciaglia was well versed in such lore.

“One of my favorites is Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter. It seems this farmer, who was also a garage mechanic, sold a certain variety of tomatoes out of his garden, and they were wildly popular. People came from all over to buy them, so he eventually was able to pay off the mortgage on his garage with the proceeds.”

Other varieties are called Pennsylvania Dutch, Blue Ridge Mountain, Arkansas Traveler, and Pink Brandywine, which Mr Bucciaglia said has to be “the best tasting tomato ever.”

Some of the more exotic varieties are: Black Krim, a beefsteak tomato from the island of Krim in the Black Sea of Russia; Cherokee Purple, which is possibly more than 100 years old and is said to have been grown by Cherokee Indians; and Mule Team, a heavy bearing plant that “doesn’t slow down until the frost gets it.”

Box Car Willy was named after the king of the hobos. Red Peach has a soft furry skin and its taste has a citrus edge.

Tommy Toe is an heirloom cherry tomato that hails from the Ozark mountains and is practically disease free. Scotland Yellows are called “keepers” because three months after harvesting them, people are still eating them.

According to the catalogs and statements by growers, heirloom tomatoes are full of antioxidants, vitamins, and cancer preventing agents. The colors normally determine the amount of acidity, with the darker colors being more acidic and lighter colors being less so.

The redder, the sweeter, and the greener, the more tart, are the usual rules for taste. Yellow and orange varieties have a mild and sweet flavor, while purple and black varieties have a bold, rich, acidic flavor.

German, Swiss, Japanese, and other pink heirlooms seem to be the trend these days, but their color can be deceiving because, in the grocery stores, pink usually means a taste akin to cardboard.

Heirloom tomato growers know that the “pink” varieties have the most intense, sweet flavor imaginable. The flesh actually turns redder as it ripens and develops a more complex sweetness touched with acidity.

Talking about heirloom tomatoes with Mr Bucciaglia is like discussing fine wines. But eating them is even better.

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