Celebrating Heirloom Tomatoes

I can remember a time, as a kid in Mississippi, when tomatoes were not the common grocery store commodity they are today. They were also far from the uniformly sized, blemish-free, picture-perfect specimens most of us see in our local stores year-round. The tomatoes of my youth were scarred, irregular and transit-weary. They were also almost non-existent in the fall, winter and spring. Then they would flood the grocery stores, farmers markets and family gardens in the summer. I remember looking forward to the breakneck pace of peak season, when everyone scrambled to consume or preserve the seemingly endless supply of summer tomatoes. These days the domestic heirloom tomato season is similarly feast or famine and August marks the start of a very brief and wonderfully unpredictable season.

Consistent is never a word I would use to describe heirloom tomatoes. Harvest dates and fruit maturity are always a moving target. Even estimating yield can frustrate the most seasoned grower who will go into a field expecting to harvest a hundred boxes and come out with a thousand (or only ten). Inconsistencies in size and ripening rate requires heirloom tomatoes to be harvested and packed by hand, which make them a more labor intensive and time consuming crop. But when the stars align and the weather is perfect there is nothing more satisfying than delivering a perfect heirloom tomato to market.

Like most row crops, heirloom tomatoes are planted in stages to extend the harvest season. This means the fruit harvested in July was actually planted in March and April. There’s a varietal element to the season as well, with faster growing varieties like the Cherokee Purple and Vintage Wine maturing earlier than the larger, slower to mature varieties like the Marvel Stripe and Brandywine. Another factor is geography. Here in California for example, the warmer Central Valley growing areas harvest sooner than farms located closer to the coast.

There are endless varieties of heirlooms that come from all over the world but only a few are commercially produced these days. Most of them fall into three broad types:

  • Purple: Dark red varieties like the Black Krim and Purple Cherokee are early and prolific producers but they’ll also be the first to finish. They are usually smaller in size and the purple varieties tend to have slightly higher acidity.
  • Brandywine: Hailed by experts as the tomato with the best overall flavor and texture, Brandywine tomatoes can be dark red, pink (or lighter red), and yellow. The come in a range of sizes depending on where we are in the season but they can get quite large.
  • Yellow blush varieties: Yellow blush varieties like Marvel Stripe, Mr. Stripy and Georgia Streak have mostly yellow exterior color with a beautiful red blush on the inside. These are also among the largest of commercial heirloom varieties with single specimens sometimes weighing in at over two pounds!

When selecting heirloom tomatoes it is important to note the very thing that makes them taste so great also makes them more fragile than most tomatoes. Heirlooms ripen faster than modern commercial varieties so you should only buy enough for a few days. One of the best characteristics of heirlooms is their texture and like all tomatoes, prolonged exposure to temperatures below 41 degrees will soften tomatoes and make them mushy so you should never store tomatoes in your refrigerator. Pick heirlooms that are somewhat firm to the touch. This is more important with the larger varieties but if you buy a soft heirloom of any size, chances are it’s overripe. You should avoid tomatoes with open splits and cracks. A tomato with a large surface area where the stem was attached will likely have a hard area inside that is unusable.

The business of growing, packing, buying and selling tomatoes has advanced enormously over the years. From January through December when we can’t grow enough tomatoes out in the open, greenhouse production takes over and the steady supply continues uninterrupted. And while these advances have given us far greater supply that reaches more households, part of me feels like anticipation is the best spice and part of the price we pay is that we no longer look forward to the late summer tomato season as much. Then August rolls around and with it the heirloom tomatoes and I’m magically transported back to Mississippi and the varieties and flavors I remember as a youth. And while growing and selling heirlooms can be frustrating, it’s worth it. I will always make time to celebrate the heirloom tomato season.

Do you have a favorite heirloom tomato variety? What do you love to make with heirloom tomatoes?